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The long and the short of fiction writing

There are only a handful of authors who successfully make the transition from short fiction to novels and back.

It is the rare writer who can make the transition from short stories to novels and back. For most, it would be the literary equivalent of speaking Arabic and Inuit. Few master both. The Irish writer William Trevor (Cheating at Canasta is his latest story collection); Lorrie Moore, the American writer who's just published her first novel in 11 years (A Gate at the Stairs); and the Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri (Unaccustomed Earth is her latest story collection and The Namesake her first novel) are among those few.

Pre-eminent among masters of the short story is the Canadian writer Alice Munro, who only wrote one novel, Lives of Girls and Women, though that is really a collection of stories. At the age of 78, she released Too Much Happiness last year, her 13th collection of stories. Raymond Carver, who perhaps more than any writer in the past 30 years was responsible for the rebirth of the short story as a popular form in North American literature, never published a novel. He did, however, publish poetry, particularly towards the end of his life. To the Waterfall was his farewell.

Adam Haslett, whose first two books are a collection of stories and a novel, said that he finds that the short story "exists somewhere between poetry and the novel". Perhaps this is because the compactness of the form means every word must count, though it is sometimes said an entire novel is contained in the best short story. The author who glided easiest among the genres was John Updike: 20 novels, a dozen story collections (his last, My Father's Tears and Other Stories, was published in 2009, the year he died), essays, a memoir and criticism and eight books of poetry. It seemed his ability to write in multiple forms was powered by an inner necessity. Updike served his art by answering whichever muse called.

* Denise Roig

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