Monday, October 09, 2006

Making a long story short

How do you feel about writers who cannibalize their own novels, ripping out a chunk that they then publish as a short story, usually in an anthology? It drives some readers crazy. Maybe it's not exactly unethical, but it somehow doesn't feel right. Or maybe it just depends on whether the chosen fragment works as a story.

My man Bill James (praise him to the skies) made a bad job of it when he took a chunk of his novel The Girl With the Long Back and had it published as a story in one of Maxim Jakubowski's Best British Mysteries collections. The "story" includes an action sequence in an unexpected setting, and it does a fair job of presenting the moral dilemmas and lurking doom that James often sets up in his novels. Its end includes one of the funniest bits of talk from one of the best-ever writers of darkly funny dialogue. But a fragment is not a story. This one ends simply because the scene ends, purporting to turn on a quirk of a main character's personality that is not strong enough to work as the denouement of a story.

The American writer Stuart M. Kaminsky, on the other hand, has a superb story in The Oxford Book of Detective Stories that I later found in one of his novels, where it works as an intriguing subplot. Even then, however, I spent a few odd pages trying to rid myself of a feeling that I was going crazy. Had I seen this before?

So, readers, is taking a piece of a novel and repackaging it as a short story ethical? How do you feel when you come across an instance of this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Anonymous Maxine said...

I'm obviously going to have to read this Bill James! Can you remind a novice which one to read first?

October 10, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

You'll find a biliography of James' Harpur and Iles novels at
I'd start anywhere from books seven through fifteen -- Club through Eton Crop. The earlier ones are all worth reading, but James really figures out what he wants to do by that middle group. The later ones are more uneven.

The first I read was Roses, Roses, which I've seen cited as the best in the series. It and the five that follow are especially strong.

And I'm looking forward to the latest novel. I just might be in London in time to get it hot off the shelves.

Enjoy your reading!

October 10, 2006  
Blogger Graham said...

Philip K. Dick used to do this all the time, except he'd take short stories and plug them in to his novels - I understand this is called a "fix-up" novel. Bill Pronzini has done the same thing, most notably in BLEEDERS.

October 11, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Graham: Thanks for a new term to add to my literary vocabulary. You saw that I liked the Kaminsky but not the James. Perhaps it's no coincidence that I read the Kaminsky story before the novel, but the James novel before the story.

A friend who knows his way around books tells me an author might be likelier to include such a cannibalized story in an anthology than he or she would in a single-author collection. In any case, the phenomenon can induce strange sensations in readers.

October 11, 2006  

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