Friday, September 13, 2013

In Search of the Romance Short Story

In spite of my best intentions, the promises I made to myself that I simply would not press that "buy" button, I did it again: I purchased another e-text-only short story by a romance writer whose novels I admire. And yes, yet again, said short story did little but disappoint, failing to meet the standards set by said author's previous books. And, just as important, failed not only to acknowledge the differences between the short story as a form and that of the novel, but also to take advantage of the similarities between the two genres.

In many ways, a short story seems completely the wrong form to convey the pleasures promised by romance. Readers read romance in large part for the slow build, the push forward-pull back tension, the repeated pattern of desire escalated then frustrated, only to culminate after that frustrated desire reaches the point of explosion. In contrast, the short story is all about tightness, focus, honing in on one key scene or, in the words of its first practitioner, Edgar Allan Poe, "a certain unique or single effect."* A short story often begins at the climax, or close to it, rather than slowly building toward it as does the novel; a romance only about the climax is hardly a romance at all.

One of my "click too often" disappointments...
Other e-romances are being published as "novellas," linking them more closely to their more lengthy printed forms. But in general I've found most of the romance novellas I've read just as disappointing as the short stories; without the time to gradually construct a romance arc, the declarations of love between novella protagonists often feel false, unearned. The ones that I've found the most successful (see this post) often focus on an already-established couple struggling through a difficult point in their relationship, rather than depicting a new love being built from scratch.

During the days of print-only books, few publishers found it profitable to publish short stories or even novellas. How could you print and bind a single story? Who would spend even a dollar to purchase a novella with a spine narrower than a pinky finger? How would such slim books be shelved in bookstores without becoming lost?

But with the advent of e-publishing, the tables have been turned. During the past year or two, both romance publishers and self-publishing authors have released a plethora of short stories and novellas, priced lower than a full-length novel but promising the same pleasures as their longer counterparts.

I'd hail the e-book revolution, and the opportunity it presents for authors to experiment with different, shorter, forms, if the resulting experimentation resulted in innovative, or even interesting, work. But far too often the short story or novella is simply a marketing gimmick, a way for a writer with an established reputation to make more money by building on her brand, churning out a bad novel, a text lacking both the novel's development and structure and the tight focus and honed theme of a true short story or novella.

And another, both by favorite authors...
At this past July's Romance Writers of America convention, a successful e-book author advised writers to have at least five works ready to be published before they attempted to make a name for themselves in the market, with a new work ready to be published following each month. Short stories, novellas, and yes, the occasional novel. Only by creating a constant flow of content would authors be able to elbow their way onto romance readers' overcrowded radar screens.

How many writers do you know who can churn out work at such a pace and actually write stories worth reading? Yet as long as fans keep click, click, clicking away, purchasing small slivers of story that they'd never have forked over hard cash for if they could pick them up in their hands and have a physical reminder of how little they contain, the flood of underdeveloped novels will continue. Please, keep my finger away from that mouse...

Do you agree that for romance readers, the novella/short story boom is more of a bust? Or have you read and admired a short story or novella issued since the advent of the e-book revolution? Did it take into account both the different demands of their forms and still provide the satisfying romance kick of a full-length novel?

* from Poe's review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, 1842. Qtd. in M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. Boston: Thompson Higher Education, 2005.


  1. Courtney Milan has a great hand with novella / shorts. I also have liked Tia Nevitt. I think romance is very hard in the short format, but the primary problem arises when I feel the author treated it as a throwaway length. A well crafted short can be more memorable than a full length read.

    1. Thanks, Meoskop. I agree that Milan has a "great hand" with multiple formats. Haven't read anything by Tia Nevitt-- thanks for the rec.

      Yes, this post is stemming from my frustrations knowing how powerful a well-written short story can be, and feeling that most of those being written by romance novelists aren't at all informed about the limitations and the possibilities of the form. Throwaway indeed.

  2. Years ago Signet used to publish Regency anthologies. There was a regular Christmas issue, but I remember at least one Valentine's Day collection and a spring collection. Some of the other romance publishers put out similar anthologies. Most of those stories were well-written for the shorter format. Lately, though, as you point out, the novellas feel more like a gimmick. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was in Balogh's The Suitor.

    It's a shame because back in the day Balogh wrote some wonderful novellas for those anthologies. Also among my favorites are the ones Edith Layton and Carla Kelly wrote. Kelly has published "Carla Kelly Christmas Collection" for the Kindle. That's the only re-issue I know about (there could be more).

  3. Maybe I read romance for different reasons than most, but for me, it's never been about the slow-build satisfaction. I want to read about the real emotional obstacles that impair people's ability to connect, to love and be loved. I don't want to be dragged languorously through conflicts that could easily be resolved with a little honest communication. For me, most full-length romance novels don't work. The singular focus on one couple's union can't sustain the pressure of tension for 80,000 words or more. The story sags, I start skimming, and I get pissed that such an otherwise beautifully written book is lingering on internal monologue, repeated dialogue, and repetitive action about conflicts that should have been resolved already.

    The novella format requires more participation from the reader. It trusts the reader to engage with the text and draw some of their own conclusions without needing absolutely every detail explained twice. It IS a different format. It's tighter and more intense, and it starts and ends in the middle of action without spoon-feeding every conclusion.

    To write the novella format is, to me, a feminist choice. Feminism in romance is about more than content. It's about structure too. It's about challenging the idea that women's issues are easily resolvable with good sex or the love of a good man. It's about exploring difficult and complex characters--both heroine and hero--and being willing to wrestle with moral ambiguity.

    It's about looking at real women's issues and purposefully choosing to not resolve them fully, or even to resolve the relationship fully, because although love is transformative it is not the final answer that ties up all loose strings. Yes, I want the gut-punch impact of romance too, but for me, that doesn't come from the push-pull tease-out that slowly builds toward total resolution. It comes from gritty, tight stories, realistic characters, real problems, and a willingness to leave some conflicts still bleeding when the story ends.

  4. I agree that the overall quality of romance shorts is poor, especially when they're primarily sequel-baiting/tie-ins. I think this was also true before ebooks, in romance anthologies. But having a short attention span these days, I am loving the high quality novellas we're seeing from writers like Courtney Milan, Laura Florand, J.L. Merrow and Harper Fox. So I think on the whole a lot of good has come out of this opportunity created by ebooks.

    The issue of writers having to write too fast is a whole other can of worms. I see significant decreases in quality when authors speed up their output and it's put a number of my formerly favorite authors on the iffy list.

  5. Some authors do it well but a lot don't. Short stories are hard to do.

  6. I haven't had the same experience as you. As others have mentioned, there have been themed m/f anthologies with satisfying short stories and novellas. The two I bought for the Courtney Milan stories introduced me to other authors whose work I've bought, like Sherry Thomas and Carolyn Jewel.

    There are plenty of successful short stories and novellas in the m/m world. The authors that come to mind immediately include P.D. Singer, Josh Lanyon, K.A. Mitchell, J.L. Merrow, Josephine Myles, Harper Fox, and Lou Harper. The UK Meet (a get together of British m/m authors and their fans) publishes an anthology; Merrow, Myles, Harper, Chrissy Munder and Clare London have published two seasonal short story anthologies; and each summer the GoodReads M/M Romance Group solicits and publishes short stories and novellas written in response to group members' prompts.

    As for authors writing too much and burning out or affecting their stories, the only one I can think of who's done that is Lanyon, who spent most of 2012 on sabbatical after writing too much too quickly. But even his mediocre writing is better than most other's writing.

    The only time I've felt truly ripped off by a standalone short story purchase was by a story by thriller writer Nelson DeMille. The story was okay, but I felt I'd overpaid for what it was. Strangely enough, I haven't felt that way about standalone Josh Lanyon stories I've read even though they were probably pricier than DeMille's.

  7. Another thought just occurred to me. Was there no excerpt available, or did the excerpt not reveal how bad the story really was?

    It's too bad because I know Balogh has a good reputation, and a novella of hers is the main attraction (and takes up the cover) of one of the anthologies I bought for the Courtney Milan story in it. I think I liked Milan's story better, but I was impressed with Balogh's as well.

  8. While Sturgeon's Law is usually applied to genre rather than form I think it still applies here. 90% of everything is crap.

  9. Apropos of multiple subjects mentioned here, I just saw an e-book advertisement for _Dangerous Women_ an anthology of short stories and novellas edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, available in December.
    Georgette Heyer's _Pistols for Two_ is my favorite collection of short stories. I also have a history of buying romance anthologies, because the short length allows me to finish a story quickly and I don't have to suffer the "I want to finish my book, so don't bother me with work, chores, socializing, etc. feeling" and I can sample work by new authors without paying full price. Unfortunately, and probably for the very reasons cited above, I have rarely been inspired to buy a full length novel by reading any short stories. I don't really welcome the opportunity to buy individual short stories offered by e-publication now either, although I would be more likely to do it for favorite authors, as above.

  10. I agree, and I also agree that aside from placing an enormous, horrifying pressure on authors, the book-a-month model's bound to disappoint readers.

  11. I just can't get into short stories. I've tried several, but I'm always left feeling like I want to get to know the characters more.

    Also, as an author working toward's *very* discouraging to read advice about coming out with so many novels in the first year. And every year after that. I just don't know if I can write fast enough. It's very discouraging.