Poets & Writers

Consider the Novella

MANY applicants to, and first-year students in, the MFA program in which I’m fortunate to teach—the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan—see short stories as the default mode of the apprentice fiction writer. There are plenty of logical reasons for this to be the case. Short stories make good writing samples for MFA applications, there are countless venues in which one might hope to publish one’s short fiction, and stories easily accommodate the rhythm and timeframe of a workshop. From a teaching point of view, in contexts in which student work usually takes pride of place, assigning short stories instead of novels, for example, seems both justified and apropos. What better introduction to the craft of fiction than studying the craftiest of genres? The one in which—perhaps a little like Dutch miniature painting—every detail must be painstakingly executed?

As an apprentice genre, short stories are rigid taskmasters, requiring a meticulous command of language, voice, characterization, plot, and action. Short stories demand that something happens in a few pages and that we as readers care about what transpires. The explicit attention that short fiction draws to questions of pacing makes the merits of studying short stories—and trying one’s hand at them—seem perfectly obvious.

In an 1899 letter to the writer Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov remarked that “good writing should

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