Thomas Ligotti on the Superiority of Short Fiction Over Novels

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Thomas Ligotti has become one of my favorite contemporary horror writers. Like my favorite contemporary science fiction writer, Ted Chiang, Ligotti writes exclusively short stories. Both writers have never published anything longer than a novella. In this excerpt from an interview, Ligotti explains why he has not and never will write a novel:

I think it’s safe to say that I will never write a novel. The reason is this: I really don’t like fiction, and novels are what fiction is all about. The only fictional works that I’ve ever admired are those which have their formal basis in essays (Borges), poetry (Bruno Schulz), monologues (Thomas Bernhard), or all three (Poe and Lovecraft). I want to hear a writer speaking, not see a movie in my mind that takes days or weeks to get through rather than 100 minutes or the time it takes to watch a multi-part mini-series. Why would anyone want to read The Silence of the Lambs when they could see the movie?

– Thomas Ligotti interviewed by Mark McLaughlin at Horror Garage

I mostly agree with Ligotti in that I generally prefer shorter works of fiction over longer novels and series. In a short story, you get straight to the essence of a core idea. There is no room for filler. You cannot spend time building drama—long character arcs and emotional storylines that make you care for the characters. You cannot do the traditional hero’s journey in full. That can be a good and bad thing—good if you care more about ideas and bad if you care more about drama. No matter the length of the story, writers should always take advantage of their medium and provide through literature something that movies cannot: the inner consciousness of a character.

Short stories tend to be less popular among readers, but more popular among fellow writers. When I was a mere reader I preferred novels, but now as a writer I prefer short stories. Part of the reason is that writers know all the tricks of storytelling that are used in order to manipulate the emotions of readers to get them to care about the characters, which is built up over time through a narrative arc. Writers are overly familiar with the hero’s journey, “save the cat,” and other writing tricks and techniques used in books and movies. So for writers, those types of formulaic narratives become less interesting to read again and again. The tropes tend to be the same in every novel and movie—it’s only the ingredients that vary between them. Of course, new ingredients in an old recipe can be thrilling, as Star Wars did by combining Flash Gordon space adventure serials with Joseph Campbell‘s archetypal mythology.

Certain writers prefer reading short stories—good short stories—because they bypass all the floor-play needed to entice readers and instead get straight to the action. The action in this case not being literal action but the core idea of the story. In a short story, all you really have time for is one idea or concept, but you can focus on that idea and present it in a new and interesting way. Another benefit of brevity is the ability to re-read short stories multiple times. If it is a deep story of the type Ligotti and Chiang write, it will absolutely be worth re-reading to fully comprehend and absorb. Due to mere time constraints, re-reading novels multiple times is a more difficult task.

Short stories at their best convey a philosophical or psychological concept in a dramatic and artistic way that is aesthetically pleasing, which in turn helps make the idea more palatable and memorable (as opposed to a dry nonfiction essay on the same topic). At least that is the type of short story Ligotti (and I) enjoy: Fiction that is philosophical—that elevates the essay to art.

One drawback of short fiction is its inability to fully develop characters, but that can also be used as a strength. Short fiction can have darker endings where main characters are killed off or fail in achieving their goals. In novels, however, readers come to care for the characters and get disappointed if they fail or die at the end of the book. Some of the harshest book reviews come from readers who loved nine-tenths of the book but hated the ending. Writers can get away with darker endings involving death, despair, ambiguity, and failure in short fiction where readers have not spent days and weeks becoming overly attached to the characters. This is especially useful when writing horror. It is perhaps why Lovecraft and Ligotti excelled at short fiction while readers often complain about the endings of Stephen King’s novels. Or as Ligotti explained in another interview:

People will accept a short horror story that ends badly. They won’t accept this in a horror novel… not after they’ve read so many hundreds of pages. Horror stories in the short form are like campfire tales or urban legends that are just a way of saying “Boo.” They have nothing to do with the real world in the minds of most readers. Nevertheless, I think there’s a great potential in horror fiction that isn’t easily available to realistic fiction. This is the potential to portray our worst nightmares, both private and public, as we approach death through the decay of our bodies. And then to leave it at that — no happy endings, no apologias, no excuses, no redemption, no escape.

– Thomas Ligotti interviewed by Neddal Ayad at Fantastic Metropolis

It’s not that writers don’t enjoy reading novels—I still do, as do most writers. Ligotti may be an outlier in that respect. Plus novels can have dark endings and be idea-based (as opposed to drama-based), with the added benefit of having more time to explore more ideas in more depth while also fully developing characters. This is what the best novelists do. But what Ligotti (or Jorge Luis Borges) would argue is: Rather than a novel, why not just write more short stories to explore those other ideas?

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