Friday, March 11, 2011

"Would 'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson be six times better if it was six times the length?"

Before you read this blog post, please take the time to read The Lottery if you have not already.  It takes only a few minutes to read and you will not regret the time spent, I promise you.

In one of my previous posts, Are short stories content? Or filler?, some rather interesting comments about short stories were made.  James Everington said, "Would 'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson be six times better if it was six times the length?"  Shana Hammaker later commented, "I think I was in the seventh grade when I was required to read that, and I'll never forget how I felt when I finished it: horrified, nauseous, and really, really excited."

James' observation really stuck with me.  Like Shana, I had to read The Lottery when I was in high school.  That was the first short story that I had ever read.  Before reading that story I no idea that I had a taste for stories with slightly twisted endings.  Even though his question was rhetorical, my answer is that The Lottery is the perfect length.

Shana pointed out, "There just isn't a better example of a perfectly encapsulated short story than The Lottery."  I totally agree with that.  So many authors these days set this arbitrary cap on how long a short story has to be before they would consider publishing it as a standalone story.  Even worse, readers will thrash a short story because of its length alone; regardless of whether or not they enjoyed reading it.


The Lottery is 3,773 words long.  That's about 2,000 words shy of what a lot of authors consider to be "appropriate" short story length.  And yet, Jackson's story is one of the most famous in the genre.  Would it have been better if it was a 22,638 word novella?  Personally, I think it would have been worse.  Some stories are more effectively told in fewer words.

7 comments:

  1. Obviously, I agree!

    Strangely enough, I'm off work today, and when I looked out the window while making a coffee some boys were outside picking up stones - took me right back to the start of The Lottery, as that's the first kind of disturbing little detail if I remember correctly...

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  2. Interesting point, Alain. I remember studying "The Lottery" in school.

    I think some writers get too caught up in so-called "industry standards" and forget that, ultimately, it is about the writing, not how many words something might be.

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  3. It's true. Here's what interests me: many authors will say "to me, a short story should not be standalone unless it is at least 5,000 words." I understand their point of view. But at the same time it seems like an arbitrary assessment of value. A 4,000 word short story is not worth 99 cents so by adding 1000 words it's suddenly work a buck? While that may not be the point they were originally driving at, that's basically the message that's coming across.

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  4. Yay for this post!
    I wish I could require everyone who posted on the pricing-for-short-stories thread on the KB to read this. ;)
    Alain, have you checked out Big Al's Books and Pals today?
    If not, here's the link: Digital Shorts

    Thought you might get a kick out of that.

    Shana Hammaker
    Twelve Terrifying Tales for 2011

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  5. Seriously, right? I couldn't believe some of those comments. Like that one guy talking about that video game. I was just like, come on, you'd pay 99 cents for tetris. Or if angry birds cost 99 cents, you'd probably pay that too. Don't give me that.

    Nice link! I am now following his blog.

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  6. Yeah, just seen that thread. No point in getting angry, people who won't pay 99c for a single short story probably aren't going to buy many collections of short stories anyway...

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  7. Yeah... it was more of just an eyeball roll on my part than anger.

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