Monday Reading: Finkler’s Question, Novels, Short Stories

If you want to write a novel, read several. No, actually, make that read many. This is what all writing teachers and writers will tell you.

Writing novels was never much a part of my game plan, but with continued practice and a few dozen short stories and flash fiction, I feel the confidence to tackle something much longer. I tell myself I’ve now read enough novels, (not because I wanted to be a writer, but because I’m a reader, and even today I’m more of a reader than a writer) so maybe I could start one. Even finish it.

And then I come across a novel like the Finkler’s Question by Howard Jacobson. It is a Booker Prize winner, and heads much older and wiser than me have called it a wise book.

So off I go, and immediately find myself plodding. It is brilliant writing, no mistake, I love the understated sense of humor, I come to see the three main characters (Finkler and Libor), two Jewish, one (Tresolve) trying to be a Jew when he is not. When I make myself read it, I find I like it, but only in parts. It is a tad more political than humorous, and I don’t care much about the characters one way or the other.

The more Jacobson goes into Tresolve’s obsession with Jewishness, (intensified by being mugged by a woman who he imagines calls him a Jew) the more I find that this novel, which to me at least is essentially about man’s (preoccupation with, insecurity of, and quest for) identity, could have been a short story. Or a novella at the most. I can’t help imagining how Jacobson could have wrapped it up within 6000 words, and I would have got his story. Not missed much…unless of course I were specifically interested in the whole Judaic history, culture, politics and conflict. Which I’m not.

I’m putting this down to my probable lack of depth or literariness (as a reader and writer) as well as my current phase of life where I always seem to be chasing something (my pet fish, groceries, relatives, writing).

But a part of me wonders how the story of a novel is different from that of a short story. Which stories can never go longer than a short stories, and which need the breadth of novels? Have you read Finkler’s Question? What do you think of it?

Blog friend and awesome writer J.C. Martin would give us tips on writing Flash Fiction this coming Wednesday, so don’t miss out Writer’s Wednesday this week! And on Friday, author of Being HumanPatricia Lynne is hosting me at her blog, so come meet me there!

Of course, if you’re a fiction writer, please sign up for the Rule of Three! Not only will it be oodles of fun, there are some cool prizes too.

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

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  1. Daina Rustin

    In the introduction to his short story "The Last Defender of Camelot" Roger Zelazny wrote: "I wrote this one for The Saturday Evening Post and they asked me to cut it to 4500 words. It is 9000 words in length. Crossing out every other word made it sound funny, so I didn’t." I think it says all that needs to be said about story length. The story needs to be as long (or short) as it needs to be, and you should let the story itself choose it's own length.

    I was never into the "philosophical" books, not since I had to read Dostoevsky in school. I believe a good writer can subtly incorporate all that behind some good and engaging plot, instead of beating you on the head with their opinions and beliefs.

  2. Annalise Green

    A wise writing teacher once told me, "Write the story as it needs to be. No longer or shorter."

    See, I have the opposite problem – my short story ideas seem better suited for novels or at least novellas, and critique groups end up asking me to put more in rather than take stuff out. It's just the nature of the kind of plots I write, I guess. It's hard, I wish I could write actual short short stories because the shorter it is, the easier it is to sell.

    It sounds like this book wasn't the length that it needed to be – more of a short story kind of thing – and I guess that's another thing for us writers to keep an eye out for!

  3. BornStoryteller

    I just faced this question when writing a submission: when is the story DONE? Sometimes, in the "need" to write a novel, do authors sometimes just add and add, with the only reason behind it to add word count?

    Sometimes I feel like you do: yes, the extra words are there only to make it qualify as a novel.

    I was originally writing a story for a submission that called for 8,000 min to 10,000 max. I got just under 5,000…and I knew it was done. I know I could have added some things to get that extra 3,000+ words, but they were really unnecessary.

    Yeah, I think I'll pass on this book. Thanks Damyanti.

  4. GKJeyasingham

    Hi Damyanti! I'm dropping by from the Literary Fiction campaign group.

    After reading many short stories, I've come to appreciate that the best short stories do what novels do, but in fewer words.

    I'm tempted to say that novels (vs. short stories) tackle the bigger questions or plots (e.g. epics), and that short stories tend to span a shorter period of time than novels, but there are probably many exceptions to these.

    I haven't read Finkler's Question, but it's on my TBR list.