Truth in The Genres — A Matter of Density
Previously, we’ve discussed Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s simple definitions of prose and poetry, (“words in the best order”, and “the best words in the best order”, respectively) but this week I propose an additional facet to the distinction between genres; one that aligns with the Kentstead Model of seeking Truthspeaking in all its forms. Simply put: In matters of truthspeaking, novels present Truth in an expanded form; short stories in a condensed form; and poems in a concentrated form. The required densities imposed by these genres merely have unique advantages and disadvantages.
Bare Bones Prose
In bare prose, we follow the Joe Friday model of expression — seeking “just the facts, ma’am” — in the mode of legal documents, math textbooks, and assembly instructions from IKEA. The truth is in there, but it’s not much fun — especially in the IKEA scenario. (You know, I take that back; after researching the writing process for IKEA instructions, it’s actually pretty fascinating and kind of cool.)
Novels and Novellas
In the storytelling style of novels, we have the opportunity to show multiple truthspeaking events and chapters and subplots. We have the luxury of time and space to focus on character development, world-building, and plot structure over an extended period. Thematic truths are fully developed and meaningful. We invite our readers into a world that demonstrates Truth and we ask them to meet us halfway in creating that world through empathy, visualization, and anticipation. But, while there is richness and depth to the truthspeaking that novel-length prose provides, there is also a delicate balance. In the sprawling architecture of the novel format, it’s easy to sometimes lose sight of individual trees in the midst of such a lush forest. Small details on page 27 might not be remembered by page 97. Characters potentially remain underdeveloped as we create scenes, describe the weather, and keep up the pacing to try and maintain reader engagement. However, the longer format of a novel can also be its salvation because dynamic scenes can compensate for slow ones and recapture flagging reader attention. And if the story doesn’t “wow” the reader in the end, they’ve probably still enjoyed the ride.
Short Stories and Flash Fiction
Short stories have both the benefit and the burden of their briefer format. They have the same type of plot objectives as novels, but much less time and space to reach them. They can have inciting incidents and plot twists, but they can turn on a dime and jump in time much faster than a novel can tolerate. Relatively fewer Truthspeaking opportunities are created, so we are forced to go deeper, faster, even though the format is shorter. Each idea and image needs to mean more because the truth is condensed and there is less room for “fluff”. Such stories present truths that are often recalled as whole narratives instead of scenes from a larger whole. With this reduced room, Valéry’s proposed “other half” of reader creation becomes increasingly vital. If such a story doesn’t engage the reader or falls flat, it is swiftly abandoned, but when this enhanced reader involvement creates greater synergy, it can result in extraordinary impact as readers “read themselves into the story.”
In novels and stories, we are able to tell a greater number of truths (and tell them in greater detail), but in poetic forms, Truth is a more concentrated commodity. There is a remarkable power in the distillation of truth into structured lines and symbolic suggestion. Consider, for example, the power of songs, and especially religious hymns (which, after all, are merely poems put to music), to express truths and other messages in a prescribed number of beats per line and a limited number of stanzas (verses).
When thematic and truthspeaking densities increase, as when we move from novels to short stories, the need for the audience’s “other half” increases as well. In poetry, this vital partnership reaches a critical mass. As we move beyond the poetic forms, and textual length shrinks beyond the point of even aphorisms and proverbs, we reach the realm of fortune cookies and bland admonitions. It is in poetry that we find our most intense truthspeaking, measured in pounds per square syllable. Beyond this threshold, beyond the reach of metaphor and allusion and symbolism, the center cannot hold and the power dissipates into the ether and becomes plain prose again.
Because depth and meaning and truthspeaking are typically contained within a much smaller poetic space, there is less room for “telling” readers what they are supposed to understand. Poetry spells things out for readers less frequently and relies more on reader creation. This structural “limitation” is a double-edged sword because it decreases the number of words, but increases the significance of those words for individual readers. Thus, poems often punch above their weight because they can contain “industrial strength” truths, but sometimes express them with less apparent clarity. Novels and short stories typically have a limited number of justifiable interpretations, but the meaning of poetic lines and stanzas can vary dramatically, as readers apply their own unique perspectives.
This is one reason why poems and short stories are often so hard to write effectively. It also helps to explain why they are sometimes dismissed by those who encounter them. In longer prose, comprehension produces the intended meaning, but when readers struggle to understand a poem’s content, it can seem as though the poet is being deliberately difficult and speaking in code. For many readers, poetry appears either too superficial to merit attention, or too dense to reward it.
Decoding the Density
Whenever we read a good book, we allow the story to develop and continue within us, and we permit the images to sharpen and become increasingly meaningful. As we encounter truth experiences in the stories we read (and those we write), we unpack the density and decode their content, and thus it diffuses through our minds and souls and leaves us changed — hopefully, for the better.
Novels of superior quality often inspire multiple readings, but typically, most novels are a “one and done” proposition. Their size and length can often require a significant investment of time and effort to enjoy. I have novels that I can read over and over again, but it is more often due to their quality and wordsmithing than a desire to vicariously relive their extensive and complex plots — though that does happen, too.
We read and interpret short stories differently than we do novels, and poems differently than we do short stories. These shorter formats invite re-reading more often than novels do. Their truths are therefore encountered and reemphasized more frequently. Unlike reading their longer cousins, we more readily suspend our need for completion in shorter formats. Especially in poems, we temporarily suspend our desire for immediate understanding, in favor of the beauty and personal meaning that we find.
Often, I re-read stories (and especially poems) right after reading them the first time, and I enjoy rediscovering their imagery, turn of phrase, and deeper significance. Because they so often invite repeated encounters, many poems and stories become our favorites because of the familiar and comfortable (or even uncomfortable) truths that they express. Many people even commit their favorite poems to memory, and thus carry their truths with them wherever they go. We can even revisit our favorites in later years and suddenly see more in them, or more in us, than was there the last time.
And so, we conclude where we have started so often — with the vital importance of the “other half” that a reader provides. No matter how detailed or dense a novel or poem may be, it is the contributed meaning that the audience brings that allows the themes and metaphors and characters to be interpreted in meaningful ways. As we present clear images and narratives, we invite that reader engagement, and together we create truth at its deepest level.