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Hamlet’s question just before his fatal duel refers to the swords he and Laertes will use against one another. Less dangerous but still intense literary duels have been fought over the significance of prose writers. Do short story masters such as Carver and O’Connor and Munro deserve equal billing with novelists. Of course, writers whose fame rests primarily on their novels are often renowned short story artists in their own right. Tolstoy and Faulkner, for example. But who can name a short story by Fitzgerald? And would he have gained the literary eminence if Gatsby and Tender is the Night had been short stories? So what is it about the novel that seems to attract plaudits far beyond those accorded to their shorter cousins? Has there ever been a nobel prize awarded to a short story author?
I recall a theory of art whose author I don’t recall that stated that art increases in significance according to the amount of reality it encompasses. This theory was advanced to explain the difference in importance between such works as Blithe Spirit and King Lear. If we apply that criterion, between a novel and a short story of equal quality, the stature victory automatically falls to the longer work. Touche, duel over. However, if one took the totality of O’Connor’s work and compared them to Fitzgerald’s, would the same be true? Do those delicious and haunting tales really provide less insight into the human spirit than the collected works of F. Scott?
Yet, what dramatist ever would be considered great whose entire canon was a collection of one-acts? Yet, what an impressive group of poets are considered great for their sonnets or sonnet-length poems alone? Is it possible to encompass more reality in fourteen lines than in twenty pages? Or is it that the shortness makes the lines more memorable? That diving deep into a novel for hours and hours somehow creates a deeper experience than spending an hour or two on a short story. Or maybe the intensity of the short poem, hitting the reader with so much in such a short period of time,  creates a deeper impression than the short story or play can.
Turning to the marketplace as an index, novels outsell everything else literary (but not how-to books), and poetry is not even on the chart. Neither are one-act plays–unless you count TV sitcoms.
I haven’t done anything but raise questions here. Maybe some of them don’t even deserve answering. Next week, I’ll come at the whole thing from a different direction. For now, au revoir.

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