Why the Short Story?

When I was in high school I remember feeling some strange disappointment when I would come across a book of short stories by an author whose novel’s I admired or when I was assigned a story for school.

I loved to read and always had, and did so a fair amount, but I found that I much preferred the long form of the novel to that of the more brief, inherently and uniquely reserved, short story. I certainly enjoyed, for the most part, what I read of author’s like Flannery O’Connor (who I today consider one of America’s greatest writers ever), mostly, I’m sure, for her weirdly ambiguous endings and mysterious characters.

Yet, I seem to have found the lack of unique plot twists and of distinctly moving moral situations so common in the short form to be a negative. I’ve been wondering why. Today, I prefer few novels to a wonderful short story (and no, it’s not because a short story does not surpass the 300 page limit I often say I don’t read beyond, jokingly of course).

Don’t get me wrong. Good short stories, and certainly O’Conner’s, do contain moving moral situations. But they are necessarily reserved in their immediate implications towards the reader. Since, in the short form, the author is limited regarding how much information they can provide, how much background they can introduce, how close they can make the reader feel to the situation or characters, such moral dilemmas can only mean so much to the reader. In other words, since you can’t know Mr. Smith from Joe White’s The Made-up Story as well as you could have had the story been a novel, then the fact that he is about to burn down his home and join a militia group is going to be less meaningful than it would be if you did know him as intimately as a similarly plotted novel would allow.

(Note that I said that short stories are limited in their “immediate implications.” Further contemplation and interpretation certainly will open up a world of implications to the thoughtful, observant reader.)

So, it would seem, the short form is concerned above all with the “why?” of the tale and the novel above all with fact, incident – the “what” of the story.

Of course, part of my lack of affection for the short form back then probably derives from the fact that novels – and the good one’s especially – are uniquely capable of creating plot-based excitement and anticipation, emotionally transfixing moral conundrums, and characters whose many layers offer insights into the human existence. Things that the short story simply cannot provide in the same way. The short story writer must work within the confines of their form and therefore they must say what they want to say, or rather show what they want to show, in a much less complicated – though, hopefully, no less thoughtful – fashion.

Necessarily, therefore, the short story, since it cannot do all the work itself, demands much more of the reader than the common novel (there are exceptions, of course). This is probably why, as a high school student, I didn’t much appreciate the form. I didn’t want to have to work as much as was being demanded of me.

I love this quote by Harold Bloom (from How To Read and Why) that, I think, sums the idea up pretty well, and provides some advice to boot:

Short stories favor the tacit; they compel the reader to be active, and to discern explanations that the writer avoids.The reader… must slow down, quite deliberately, and start listening with the inner ear. Such listening overhears the characters, as well as hearing them; think of them as your characters, and wonder what is implied, rather than told about them. Unlike most figures in novels, their foregrounding are largely up to you, utilizing the hints subtly provided by the reader.

From Turgenev through Eudora Welty and beyond, short story writers refrain from moral judgments… The most skilled short story writers are as elliptical in regard to moral judgments as they are in regard to continuities of action of the details of a character’s past life. You, as reader, are to decide if moral judgment if relevant, and then the judgment will be yours to make.

The short story provides some unique challenges for both writer and reader, challenges that they must, in effect, confront together, in concert with each other.

In it’s own meta-fictive way, reading a short story is a bit like solving a mystery. The clues are laid out for us (one hopes) and it is our job to make sense of them.

It is for this reason that I love reading a good short story.

And I suppose, therefore, that writing a short story is something like creating a puzzle, perhaps one of the crossword variety even. It is the job the writer to set forth pieces whose shapes will appropriately fit together. With just the right amount of ambiguity of course.

I for one hope the short story makes a comeback.

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4 Responses

  1. Kiernan, I agree on Helprin! David Guterson and Peter Ho Davies are also excellent.

  2. I agree. The short story is under-appreciated because it reveals so quickly (and sometimes mercilessly) our flaws as readers. It is far less forgiving than the novel, and therefore some of the best reading once you’re ready to challenge yourself as a reader. To my own embarrassment, I’m constantly getting to the end of a short story and realizing that I misread it, missed the signs along the way.

    Have you read much of Mark Helprin’s short stories? I’ve loved his collection “The Pacific.” Helprin’s prose is always soaring, but in that collection the intricacies of his stories match the poetry of his style — a rare achievement.

  3. If you haven’t already, dive in to Russell Kirk’s volume of short stories, *Ancestral Shadows.* Wonderful.

  4. Match your antecedents and pronouns in number. The writer is not they.

    Commie pinko.

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