Short fiction, or bust

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(Or: A manifesto on the short story as form, despite my own misgivings)

There’s been a lot of hullaballoo around the interwebz about the state of the short story. Curiously and gratifyingly, the two more famous ones—the New York Timesrah-rah for the form that set my Twitter feed abuzz a week ago, and Laura Miller’s (recent) scathingly condescending retort—don’t offer anything about short fiction’s death, or non-death. Both are about the form’s popularity among a reading public that, by habit and/or taste, tends to overlook it. (I guess this is a good thing, as we hear enough of that kind of twaddle about the novel—undoubtedly, it seems, the short story’s much cooler older brother. It’s twaddle that, I think, just distracts us from actual reading.)

So, fine, yay, the short story’s not dead. Then again, it’s never been dead. It’s been neglected, it’s been laughed at, it’s been coddled and tolerated—most of the time it’s been passed over because, to quote many a reader, “Short stories are just not my thing.” Shrug. Occasionally, short fiction shines beyond its little conclave of devotees—and the outside world begrudgingly accepts these samples, as an established city might open its gates to seeming barbarians. And the acceptance is always despite the form: Oh, look at this amazing piece of literature, and it’s short fiction! Shrug, again.

But the short story has never gone away—mostly because, I think, no one’s bothered to organically initiate a lynching—which means it can’t contrive the comeback that will knock our socks off. (The flashiness thing, just not its style, man.) And it will never go away, because what short stories are very good at is simply existing, despite not having the Life—the humanity-saving gravitas—assigned so capriciously to the Novel. The short story is, because most of the time people leave it be. And it’s fucking thrived anyway. (An argument, I’m the first to point out, could be made for literature in general.)

Anyway. My friend Nash and I were talking about this earlier today, in exasperated whispers in a crazy-and-crazier workplace, as I rather uncharacteristically offered my two cents about the ruckus on my schizophrenic Twitter account [samples: 01, 02, 03]. And in that pocket of sanity Nash and I made for ourselves, I articulated something that I suppose I’ve figured out for myself long ago—one I suppose I can only draw out now because I’m both so fucking frustrated and fangirly-thrilled that we’re even getting our panties in a bunch. Over the short story—of all things to mind! (The grizzled short story is blinking its eyes against the glare of the spotlight: “What the hell are you looking this way for?” it asks, whilst trying so very hard not to smooth down its cowlick.)

Basically: What marks the short story as a form, as a tradition, is its inherent strangeness—which has translated, over the years, into sheer uncoolness. The short story has never, and will not likely ever, reach the exalted status of the Novel—which, at least, provokes those aforementioned nauseating conversations about its mortality. (Not to mention the badge of honor it’s shaped itself into being; why doesn’t anyone ever reach for The Great [Country of Origin] Short Story?]

We’ve looked toward the short story as the runt trying to play grown up, and halfheartedly at that—only at the insistence of the people who admire it, write it, or need to sell it. It’s just not cool, and it’s difficult to boot. The worse ones feel even more of an affront than bad novels—at least the latter have the grace to give us meat. The best ones sap us of response: All that emotion, all that effort, into so condensed and concentrated a package—Why the hell didn’t I read a novel instead?

The short story is something that even seasoned readers are loathe to poke, as though they sense that the form has never figured itself out beyond the boundaries it has set for itself. Poor thing. And lord, don’t even get them started on the average-of-ten-headed-hydra that is the short story collection or anthology. Off the top of my head: There are good parts in novels/novellas—but in collections, there are bad stories, and there may be worse scenes in each. With collections, you have to consider unevenness—you have to consider discreteness and unity at the same time.

(A side note: Undoubtedly, to my mind, the form bears a pathetic existence compared to the novella, whose length—whose matter-of-fact awkwardness—gives it a charm with which to pull people in. The novella has the sensibilities of the short story, but the expansiveness of the novel. Or the other way around. Or it’s a long short story, or a very slim novel. The novella, basically, tricks us by straddling two made-finite-by-tradition forms. It’s the best of both worlds. Well done, novella, four for you.)

Yes, approaching the short story—reading it, writing it, seeing it in a bookstore and wondering if one should buy it—requires a specialized sensibility. One that takes into account length, degree of expansiveness or concentration, its standing amid a pre-packaged collective, and the fact that it’s not a novel. What the hell do you do with a short story anyway? (The answer, forevermore in Sasha Land: You deal with it.)

(Another question I pose to The Great Literary Tradition: Where we ever comfortable talking about a single short story as one would talk about a novel or a novella or a poem? I suppose marketing has a hand in this: Who sells individual short stories? Give the public some heft, by Jove. But how would the greater discourse be if we figure this out? Lots of blogs out there dissect short fiction piecemeal, and rightly so. Maybe we’re wrong to be critical of short stories lumped together. Maybe we should just hold them up against the light, one by one, with the care, energy, and attention they demand.)

And in that parenthetical, I suppose, is why I’m mad about short stories. I mean, what I love about the form is precisely what constrains it: Its specificity, and the care it insists on drawing from both the writer who writes it and the reader who reads it, thinking, “What the hell did I get myself into and why is it so satisfying?” It’s an intellectual and emotional challenge for both roles. It’s something to admire. It manages to sprawl through careful distillation and painstakingly administered revelations; it succeeds by navigating through the morass that is language, by employing the narrative-as-ethics of the essay, by caring for the character as deeply (and sometimes, in a better, more clever way) as the novel which has built itself up by its raison d’être of championing humanity despite the occasional foibles that can make humanity so sucky.

And its range, its hair-tearing range, despite the little-engine-that-could character that’s been pushed toward it (one that I know I’m doing, too, in this post that’s gotten way out of hand)! There are tricksters like Lydia Davis, who type up an elaborate sentence as a title and an add-on phrase as the text body itself. There are the gruff macho men that startle you with tenderness, as with Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. There are the doyennes, whom one can imagine to calmly sip tea at their porches as they excruciatingly yet gracefully cram whole lifetimes into twenty-pagers—like Alice Munro, who else? There are the girls with the chip on their shoulders, like Lorrie Moore; there are those who dissent either through twee-poignancy or false bravado, like Miranda July or Joan Silber or Simon Van Booy (this seems to be in vogue these days). There are the short story writers no one reads—like Harold Brodkey or Wilfrido Nolledo. And then there’s Chekhov. (Hah.)

And yet, what I can hate about the form is precisely that specialized sensibility it will always demand from me. I am, for example, a reader who prefers to polish off books in one sitting, a reader who wants to be devoured by sweeping tales or the emotional grip of volume and heft. And I am an impatient reader—and contrary to how the short story’s been touted for our ilk: Having me sit down with something, only to know that it will end too soon, sends alarms of deep and abiding frustration within me, too.

Yeah, I’m a confused duck. That I’m reading short stories at all—that I can pledge by them—is probably enough of an indication. But fuck me, right, short fiction? (Short fiction grumbles in response; it’s getting grumpy. It does that, in my head, especially when it sees that I’ve tangled myself in circular arguments. Right now, it’s barking at me to git and get off its goddamned property.)

The thing is, children: The short story will persist, and our attitude toward it will endure. The novel may die, resurge, die again, get resurrected endlessly by its legion detractors and champions; the essay will toy with medium and length and preoccupation and ethical standards; the novella will always be the special little snowflake it’s grown comfortably into; poetry will keep curdling our blood with its beauty, its inscrutability, and its conceit that it’s the best form for thought-and-soul that ever will be. And the short story will be in a corner, nursing a warmed beer, brooding over an overflowing ashtray, trying so obviously and awkwardly not to meet anyone’s eye for fear that it might seem too needy—and it’ll be there in that complicated metaphor of a corner forever. And, kids—we’ll all just have to deal with it.

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74 comments

  1. I say only to you: H. P. Lovecraft. His Nyarlathotep is as disturbing and reverberating a story as I have ever read and just a few pages. And I am still not sure it’s not real. All of Lovecraft’s stories, short as they are, are like this. and he has had even more influence on literature than even Shakespeare. As sso as you drench yourself in him you will see with clear eyes all the writers he has crawled inside of.

    1. “The Dark Descent” is a shudderingly good anthology of short story horror, over a thousand pages of solid proof that you only need a few minutes to raise intense emotions in your readers. Just peruse the Table of Contents on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Descent-Clive-Barker/dp/0312862172

      Three stories whose memory makes my skin crawl at the mere sound of their names are “Sticks,” by Karl Edward Wagner, “Bright Segment, ” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “The Autopsy,” by Micheal Shea.

      1. Ah, Clive Barker’s yellowing paperbacks were a staple of my childhood, flush against Stephen King’s. But they were my mother’s, I’ve never actually read him. Is his horror deeper than that of King’s and Peter Straub’s? King’s horror, especially, can be too pop for me, a little superficial. (Note, though, that I say the above, having little to no knowledge about horror and fantasy. So. Heh.)

        1. Clive Barker’s work is far more psychosexual: psycho, sexual, and psychosexual. A lot of his work is great, and definitely worth a read. And given what I’ve just said, some of his very best work comes in the form of his children’s stories.

          As for the short story, I have to say I prefer it to the novel. It’s not that a novel is too much work…but hell, it’s too much work. I’ve rarely managed to get through 100 pages of a novel without thinking, “why in the world would I ever care about these people?” And with that thought, the novel is lost to me. A short story, though? In 40 pages, less, I can be transformed. Chalk it up to being a news/features/serials reader, I suppose?

          Anyway, great read. Thanks for posting it, and give ol’ Clive a try! “Our bodies are books of blood. Once we’re opened, we’re red.”

          1. xtopherjacques, you’re hysterical. I was going to throw out some snarky line about how that’s all children need: more psychosexual stories, but then I remembered what children see on a daily basis on television and in video games. Psycho and sexual are the norm. If you really want to shock the hell out of them, tell them you trust them to walk a block to the school bus alone.

        2. Uh…I got lost in those first two sentences. Is it Barker you haven’t read? Frankly, I don’t know much about him, either. I only canvassed him briefly in “The Dark Descent” and, as I recall, he was a little too overt for me, like crotchless panties at the prom. I prefer the dancing.

          That being said, King didn’t really titillate, either. His stories were quick-paced and rather stripped down of art to me–the perfect crap for an impatient teen or twenty-something to gobble in absence of anything better. (It was the 80s and I was in a small town.) I think King’s gift was his range of ideas rather than any real writing skill, he sure churned out a haunted library of ways to creep yourself out.

          I haven’t read horror in more than twenty years because, frankly, after the horrors of real life set in, the thrill of fictional monsters and psychos fade into the background of childhood. Subtly takes center stage and you begin to appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship of the true artist–but you can only do so after getting to know your own self really, really well.

          The three short stories I mentioned are all very different writing styles, yet all worked on me so well at the time. I’m fascinated by the way totally different techniques can still harvest the desired outcome.

          1. Sorry about that, I meant to say that they were my mother’s paperbacks — only, I happened to have gravitated toward the Stephen Kings. So I know about him, but haven’t read him.

            King, however, was all but my childhood playmate. I understand that he’ll never be as “literary” — and I’m aware of the flaws in his stuff that I’m absolutely crazy for. But myeh. I love him, I have fun with him, I’ll most probably cry when he dies. It helps that I’m confident that he loves what he’s doing, it shows, and, yes, as you’ve pointed out, he’s got an infinite well of ideas. And that’s why, I opine with my rock-solid faith, he keeps on writing.

            And, like you, I hardly read any horror these days. If there’s any genre I more frequently dip into, it’s romance. Then again, with the short story, I’ve always gravitated toward literary fiction (I use the label with a shrug, haha). To paraphrase you: There’s horror in the real, deeper terrors in the subtexts of grounded lives.

            1. Good point And never hesitate to roll your eyes at other people’s opinions, I never do. Only you know how to float your own boat. Case in point, there are people erecting burning shrines to “Catcher in the Rye” as we speak but I never got into that book. I thought “A Separate Peace” ate Salinger for breakfast and “Ordinary People” defecated him, so it just goes to show. If we all liked the same thing, libraries would be no bigger than hand carts. Read on.

    2. I’ve long been thinking of launching a campaign against H.P. Lovecraft. I know so little about the man; have only a vague notion of him giving birth to a genre, not to mention a multitude of creatures. A friend of mine has been lugging around Lovecraft’s stories everywhere; I might peek at a story before I fully commit.

  2. I can swear you’ve written a novel here (if a tweet is one page, there must be at least a hundred pages here, right?). And I do find this ironic for a post in favour of the short form:) I take your point about word counts. But I’m on a mobile here, lol. I have finally reached the end of your post though! Like you, I like short forms, but I admire the grandness of vision of the novel, because it’s something I can’t imagine pulling off myself. Chekhov is good. I recommend also the Japanese palm-of-the-hand stories by Nobel laureate Kawabata.

    And finally, here’s a re-ordering of my original eulogy of the short story in two haikus and a couplet, inspired by your blog:

    Over far too soon
    The dark tale written well will
    Have its way with you.

    Short forms are the boo
    Their palms light with quick delight
    Wrench your heart in two.

    Leave them be my friend.
    And they’ll leave you the end.

    1. I thanked you on Twitter when you first sent me the comment, and let me reiterate my gratitude here, where it would be relatively less fleeting, haha. Thank you so much, it’s a beautiful haiku. And, no, I don’t find it odd at all that I’ve rambled forever for the short form. :)

      I fell in love with Chekhov early, thank goodness. In school, where I wasn’t happy at all with him [bad choice of the professor, or the wrong time for me to read him?] — and beyond: When I picked him up on my own. I could read “The Lady with the Little Dog” over and over.

  3. […] really like it though. And what I really like is trolling around blogs and seeing random entries that spill insight on the state of a certain genre of writing. Which makes me think about my country and the […]

  4. […] Munro, I suppose, was just wishful thinking. After my hysterical ode to the short story, you’d think the Munro—considered by many her best, and I’ve already long devoted myself to […]

  5. I find short stories are harder to write. From a writer’s point of view. From a reader’s point of view, it’s fast to read and finish.

    1. If I may: Harder to write than which form? Also: Theoretically, the comparative brevity should appeal; then again, some short stories pack a wallop and contains an emotional depth usually attributed to novels alone. So. Same difference, sometimes, haha.

  6. With us in the internet age, short stories are the best as they are downloadable and read within 1 or 2 hours. Who would want anything else?

  7. One thing good about the internet is it makes getting short stories easier as now you can have them downloadable at your finger tips! Right!

    1. That’s one of the main arguments of the NYT piece: That we’re in a digital, fast-paced world, ergo the short story takes the lead as a compact, easy-to-read, easy-to-download form. I tend to agree with Laura Miller, though, that this is essentially wishful thinking.

      1. I think it is awesome to be able to use the internet for this! Thanks for your comments. http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

  8. Funnily enough Hemingway’s one of the big swinging wossnames of the novel; I prefer his Winner Take Nothing collection of short stories to any of his novels. Far too fixated on killing things, always stank of rum and trout no doubt, but heckuva good title writer.

    In case you’re interested, here’s a v short story I wrote (it’s too long to be microfiction, maybe too short for a short story).

    http://froodianpseudoanalysis.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/dystopia/

    Apologies for the link baiting. I like your writing style by the by and congrats on the fresh pressing.

    1. I have a book of his short stories somewhere. I told myself one summer to read them one by one, to love Hemingway because was I not a girl who liked Hemingway? (Turns out, I wasn’t. He and I simply couldn’t hit it off.) (I’ve long since shed the shame.)

      Although I’ll have a special place in my bibliophilic heart for his “Hills Like White Elephants” — read this one for a class back in college, and having had to study it so intensely, I could not help but love it.

  9. To me, short stories are more difficult than writing novels, just because a novel gives me space to stretch out my creative instinct, while a short story has to be condensed within 20 pages. Still, the fact that anyone can write them with any skill should be a testament to them as a writer, as it shows they have some ability in writing something that’s short and grabs our attention and does it with words instead of images.

    1. I think the two forms require distinct sets of skills, albeit grounded on the same aesthetic / philosophy. (I think one can even take one story and either weave a short story about it or weave a novel around it. It’s not so much that the words matter less in the novel, since the short story’s words have to work double-time.) But, I agree: Because the short story demands so much given the comparatively constrained space, I’m biased enough to cheer on more those writers who pull it off, haha.

      1. Same here, my friend. Can’t help but admire those who write short stories, especially those who only write them and do it very well.

  10. Hard to tell if your story is real. I don’t know really. The story is really long and I wanted it to be shorter in length. Short stories are easier to read, but I would imagine harder to write. Like your ending a lot. I welcome your readers to read and perhaps follow my blog. Please visit https://bradfordcares.wordpress.com/

  11. I love that last paragraph. I think what pisses me off about contemporary short stories is their snootiness and complete disdain for ordinary readers who are looking to be entertained without having to have the hours of advanced literature courses needed to appreciate the stories. These stories are deservedly in the corner of the room reflecting on their own neurosis. Being interesting to ten people doesn’t make them important. While there are some with literary fetishes who get their kicks from a boring story by Chekhov, what about the masses Anton entertained before he abandoned them? Is a short story ever going to reclaim this audience? American authors have mastered artistry and craft but have forgotten how to entertain. It’s a shame.

    1. I’ve certainly encountered those snooty stories; then again, the kind isn’t particular to the form. Sometimes it works for me [Miranda July seems to be divisive to many, on this point] and sometimes it doesn’t [Lydia Davis’ microfiction makes me want to lock up puppies.] Moreover, I get my kicks from those boring stories by Chekhov, and from authors who like to show off their mastery of the craft (provided the story remains king, of course; nothing more irritating to me than a story that’s essentially showing off technique. I mean, show off something else, like, I dunno, an ear for language or a confident knowledge of people’s motivations?)

      1. I like Chekhov and modeled a story of mine on his A Boring Story. However, I do appreciate Chekhov’s early material that was targeted to the masses and sold quite well in its day. I just think that writers, especially those emerging from MFA programs, are pressured into writing for the literary elite. It’s like the literary establishment assumes the guy working the graveyard shift at the 7-11 would have no interest in reading short stories. Why? People are reading now more than ever, but they’re having to scavenge the internet to find things they like. Besides Manga, where can one find the short story targeted to the masses in print form? (And while the New Yorker and other similar magazines may have a large readership, they’re still targeted to cultural elitists and not to the common man) There’s a place for pop/literary short fiction, but right now, “pop/literary” is an oxymoron.

  12. Jessica · · Reply

    Segmation: I came to the same conclusion myself when I started blogging short stories. It seems to me like the popularity of blogs makes a sock-knocking off “comeback” (or perhaps more like a more accurately a “come in the first place) possible for the short story. I’m also thinking of playing with a Dickens-style novel-by-installment format.

  13. Yeah for the short short – I use prompts as titles to get my gears turning – love the way you wrote about this and what Jessica said about the come back of short stories – I’m following you and I’ll be back to read more soon. Here’s a prompt inspired few of mine: http://whisperbreath.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/18-fifties/

  14. Wonderful story. Congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  15. Melanie · · Reply

    I have a whole shelf dedicated to short story collections: Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Steven Milhauser, Celia Rivenbark, John O’Brien, Joanne Harris, O. Henry, and others. I also have a shelf dedicated to my college literature anthologies which are filled, filled I tell you, with more short stories than I could read in a lifetime (ok, a month). If it weren’t for short stories, my English degree would have taken decades. Long live short stories.

    1. Oh, Melanie, I couldn’t agree more: If it weren’t for the short stories I chanced upon as a kid — a collection by a local author I’d bought, because with a 12-year-old’s logic, I figured it was a better deal getting 8 stories than just one novel — my life would probably have taken a wildly different direction. [Yikes.]

  16. I never understood why any reader would discriminate against a story because of its length. A good story is always worth reading, be it 1,200 pages long or 12.

    Nice post. :)

    1. Thank you so much for visiting. The novel and the short story may demand different things from the reader, and in different ways — but that same demand is there, and, if done well, the same rewards. The opposite is true: If it’s a crap story or novel, you have that same desire to rip out those poor, unsuspecting pages.

  17. Wow. I love this so much! You know how people say, “I could not have said that better myself!” to be kind? Well I say it because I really COULD NOT say it better myself. Bravo.

    1. Aw, shucks. Thank you so much for visiting, Adam. :)

  18. Melanie, Jessica, others…hail!
    As an amateur/independent/(mostly) unpublished/whatever writer myself (quite another discussion), I have always tended to favour short stories as a reader. Novels can be great, personal taste and reading style aside, but boy do they let you down big time as they begin to drag on! It is only a rightful debate whether highly-crafted form comes before entertainment or thril, or whether incomprehensible short stories are any finer than simply amusing ones. A righteous debate I should also say.
    Whatever our personal preferences, there is absolutely no chance we will not like, even love, certain short stories. That the novel is way better is a matter of opinion, cockiness and critical self-righteousness. Fuck them all. The fact suffices me that a short story can make laugh, drive me to tears and leave me pondering way way faster than any novel -and sometimes for way longer than a novel.
    But then again I am a proponent. Funny enough I write both short stories and poetry, the small and the big, for the sheer pleasure of so doing, while I have tried my fingertips at only one “novella” [and may have been writing some stuff approaching an “oh so light novel” for what now seems far too long].
    Away from school, we read what we read, I should hope, not what we are told to. Give me most any story from “Doce Cuentos Peregrinos” (García Márquez) and I will be in heaven; give me just one more novel by P. Roth and I will puke.

    1. Melanie · · Reply

      I do appreciate the art and craft of storytelling. I read both short stories and novels. Usually I read short stories at lunch and novels at night. I have a fondness for short stories, and that is what I like to write. There’s something about the challenge of putting together an entire story with the fewest words possible that appeals to me.

  19. Amy Pond · · Reply

    As someone who, among other things, grew up on the best sci-fi short stories of the 50s, 60s, and 70s thanks to my parents’ tastes, one thing I have always liked is that a short story can pack a hell of a punch. Its very shortness means that it can outline an idea with brevity and then BAM! – turn around and hit you with something you didn’t see coming, right at the end. Short stories are great for exploring ideas – you don’t need all the character development of a novel, you don’t need the tens of thousands of words of plot development – you can just take an interesting little concept and put it right out there, without the story dragging and without giving the reader a chance to figure out the plot twist. Take a look at Asimov’s robot short stories, or some of John Brunner’s short stories, or any of Larry Niven or Clifford D. Simak’s short stories. There is an elegance and succinctness to their short stories, and an acute emotional impact, that is hard to find in a full novel.

  20. VictoriaJoDean · · Reply

    Agreed – love them and hate them. Even more, they are so hard to write well. They’re an art in and of themselves. I keep picking up the challenge to conquer the difficulty of writing one and keep falling short..

    1. Hard to write well, indeed. And, since I’m biased: I’m doubly impressed when an author pulls it off, and seemingly effortlessly.

  21. Roshni · · Reply

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! Even though I haven’t read too many short stories, I have loved all those I’ve read and, well, I love short stories! Great post, awesomely written. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Haha, thank you so much! I’m thrilled to have been featured, and I’m glad this hysterical ode to the story has reached more people.

  22. I always slow my pace when I begin to read a short story – it’s diminutive length makes it precious; its density of wonder makes it a deeper experience. No drawn-out character development – no setting of scenes. The reader is thrown into an unknown mileu – BAM – and is left with little time to absorb the events before they have passed, leaving them eager for more words by the same author.

    A short story is the starter, the taster, that little nibble that leave the palete yearning…

    The loveable short story can finally rest easy in the age of the eBook. No more hiding within the pages of little-loved anthologies, they can stand up in their own right alongside novella and full-length novels on the virtual shelves at Smashwords, Kobo and Amazon.

    1. Thank you for this comment, it’s beautiful. Sometimes, when a story’s really good — and I’m confident the rest of the collection’s the same way — I have to slow down between stories, for fear of them running out. Harold Brodkey comes to mind, especially. And those one-collection writers whose necks I want to wring, because COME ON PEOPLE I NEED TO READ YOU.

      I try, however, not to treat the form as appetizer. Mostly because if I get lucky and stumble onto the good ones, they’re a full meal in themselves.

      Re this grand ol’ digital age: That’s the dream, isn’t it? In a way, we have more chances to prove that an individual can stand proudly alongside a novel, or a particularly masterful longform essay. It’s about time majority stopped thinking that because it’s shorter, it’s less meatier. Augh.

  23. I’m pleased to see someone way up in the comments above me (Jessica) mentioned Dickens; the serial formats of the 19th century lending itself to the short story. I like the short or the long, or the prose poem in between, I love, love, love the Victorian era because it’s chock full of short stories and my Honours thesis is very probably going to have at least two and one novel because I value both styles for different reasons. P.S I have library envy of that gorgeous photograph of cram packed shelves!! Congrats for the FP!!

  24. While you’re focusing on the reader’s choice between short stories or novels, we might also look at it from the writer’s perspective. I agree that a short story can be more difficult to pull off than a full-length book, yet require just as much work.
    Another factor may be the marketplace itself. I suspect it’s as difficult for a writer to land an acceptance for a short story as it is for a novel — with the bigger payoff, of course, being for the book. Put another way, in terms of marketing, when you buy a book, you’re buying that particular writer. When you buy a magazine, you’re getting the whole gang, and who knows which one swayed your purchase.
    Maybe Internet will change that, though we know what royalties to expect.
    As a reader, though, I find most novels could be cut by a third to a half, easily. And I prefer the ones closer to novella length, in general.
    In a time-pressed society, shorter fiction should have a large audience. Maybe the challenge is in making it sing more faithfully of our own life experience.

    1. That’s how it’s worked in publishing: When you come out with a short story, make sure it’s in a bound book with about eight to ten others. And then, of course, the edited anthology of fiction and one author’s collection of short stories are two completely different animals. The former relies on a more rigid theme, not to mention the tastes of the editor. The latter provides you with a range of the author’s work. Not so much ten or so opportunities for him to show of his skills; it’s simply the nature of the idea or the story or the scene that came to him, a nature that demanded one dedicated story. Simply replicate this philosophy for all the other stories, and there you’ve got a collection.

      Which is why I’ve always preferred collections to anthologies. I can name about five anthologies I truly love — the Eugenides-edited My Mistress’ Sparrow is Dead comes easily to mind — but will admit surrender when it comes to the collections I’ve devoured. This, I suppose, gives credence to the oft-repeated, “Short stories are too short; I wanted more from the author.” I mean, it’s probably a need for more of the author’s work — not necessarily “what happens next, gimme!” in the story itself.

      And, as I’ve said above, I might just be cynical, but I still think it’s wishful thinking: the “resurgence” of the short story because of this whole ebook business that will allow you to access one story at a time. I’m all for stories standing on their own, mind you, but sometimes I feel that it’s inevitable that one story is simply an invitation for more of an author’s work. That is: If this downloaded story works, which you read whilst on a long train ride, then you amass more of his stories.

      1. You have me revisiting to one of my favorite reads of recent years, the collected Andre Dubus, which provided that satisfaction of having more you describe. Moreover, in returning a set of short stories, aren’t you more likely to delve into a favorite section again in a way you’re less likely to do with a novel? (Here I am now, about to head off to retrieve a Carol Bly collection …)

        1. Excellent point. Seems odd (not that I haven’t done it myself, haha) to reunite with a novel and simply read scenes you like. I mean, if it’s a good novel, you’ll likely also want that scene in the context of the entire chunk. Short stories also allow us, now that I think about it, to play favorites more easily, more compactly.

          Dubus is someone I haven’t read yet (this thread is forcing me to realize there are far too many writers I haven’t read yet), and I’ve been intrigued by Carol Bly ever since I discovered she and Robert Bly were the parents of a romance novelist I liked. (It was like three corners of my shelves collided in the most awe-inspiring way, that discovery.)

  25. I think we trap ourselves, as readers or writers, into a false dichotomy with novels and short stories, as they both have things to offer. To use an engineering analogy, novels are ships, while short stories are cars. Leave certain things out and neither will work. The former are a hell of a lot of labour and are usually quite majestic to watch passing (although some are a little squalid). The latter can be dragsters, but can also be that wretched oil-burner that sits moldering in the weeds of an unkept backyard. While both are in the same broad category (“transport”/”literature”), they fill rather different needs, and when you want one the other will not satisfy. I suppose poetry can be thought of as a rocket in the same way; exciting when it works, but very easy to get wrong.

    1. I’ve thought for days for the response due your comment, but all I’ve come up with so far is: “A thousand times yes.” Sigh. Sometimes, I think I sound rather flaky, trying to be diplomatic of the short story reader’s experience and the novel-reader’s experience. Because, after all, I’m both — many of us are. And, like you said, we come to books — whatever form or genre they may take — for different reasons, depending on need or interest or the time one can commit, or just on pure visceral reaction; the differences in form and genre could only help us make our decision.

      Again, though: Thank you, thank you for this comment. And for dropping by, yes, but mostly for this comment. That’s something I should have said, but then again, I couldn’t have said it better than you did.

  26. The short story is still one of the most perfect art forms in writing. But, like most art, it’s very difficult to do well.

    And, yes, it’s demise has been foreseen before, but it’s still viable and kicking pretty darn strong. :)

  27. Wonderful post! I was wondering when someone would explore the short story scenario. It’s something I have recently begun doing and I respect short story writers even more now, considering how much they manage to say sometimes in so few words.

    Cheers,
    supertramp.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, and dammit I love your handle, haha. I can’t speak the same for novelists, as I’ve only written short stories — but, man, the intensity of the writing, the pressure of making every word work double-time. It’s not just the constraints of the word count, it’s the demands of a distilled or crystallized experience.

  28. Many of the posts we write daily are short stories of a sort. For short stories, or short short fiction, to become popular is no stretch of the imagination at all.

    My problem with the short story actually has to do with modern accepted conventions that it should have a twist ending, ambiguious ending, or be depressing as hell. Why does the short story have no literary merit unless it leaves you miserable. You’ve just been tricked, wasted your time, or put in a bad state of mind. No wonder readers don’t enjoy short stories.

    I’m actually working on a collaborative short story project on my blog right now. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and the feedback has been very positive. Check it out and vote if you have the time.

  29. Amazing article! I have noticed as well an unfortunate neglect to the short story, and I myself prefer a compilation of short stories to many a monolith novel. Lately, among short stories and autobiographical anecdotes, I have been writing a lot of poetry; another art I feel needs to be revived in the spirit of a more common intellectual topic. Check out my blog; I think you might enjoy the content.

    http://thesubstanceofdreams.wordpress.com/

  30. Great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed. I love short stories and Flash Fiction. Ernest Hemingway’s wonderful six word story ”Baby shoes for sale. Never worn” is still the best one i’ve found so far.

  31. Reblogged this on The Art of Monologuing. and commented:
    Lol, of course, the Short Story will endure :D

  32. Sakshi! · · Reply

    Loved your post.
    Well, I’m in that phase where I love writing short stories just for my own satisfaction. Short stories have always been a great read for me (Atleast the ones that I have read) and yet, I feel sad that they end so quickly. And there are some short stories which have really made me feel that each minute I spent on it is worth it.
    :)

  33. Haha lol, I like how you write. =P And I totally get the frustration of why-isn’t-this-longer-I’ve-only-been-reading-fifteen-minutes. Anything shorter than a certain length is somewhat unsatisfying… And that sounds vaguely dirty but you know what I mean, lol.

    I suppose the challenge with short stories is conveying a lot of content but strapped in a sparseness of words. Personally the only time I can do that is in poetry, where it’s easier to set a scene and tell the tale, yet leave it open to interpretation. I’ve had a number of emails from people telling me how a certain aspect of one of my poems appealed to them, and they identified with it, when really I was writing with something completely different in mind. But that said, some shorts I’ve read have been beautifully written, so much so that they’re almost disconcerting and disorienting. Maybe it just comes down to the skill of the author? Just a thought.

    And yep! Congratulations on being freshly pressed! :-)

    1. Ps. Also, Barker’s genius. I’m immune to horror, movies or books, but that man has way of unsettling you deliciously.

  34. Until I started writing short stories I didn’t read them which makes no sense. It’s like learning the alphabet backwards! Perhaps if schools actually engaged with short stories as literature there may be some change. Until then we have to keep on pushing!

  35. This is lovely. I’d like to make 3 recommendations for any relationship with short stories – be it a love or a hate relationship. One: Amy Hemphill. Two: Zoetrope magazine. Three: Selected Shorts radio program bringing voice to short stories.

  36. Wow, I just discovered your blog and this post is amazing. I’m a follower! Love, love, love shorties. I read at least two or three a week. My blog is classic short stories (horror) but mostly the dead 19th-century authors like Lovecraft and MR James, Mary Shelley, Edith Wharton, etc.
    Here’s something I found interesting. Whenever I post a classic short by a female author, I get more hits on my blog. What do you make of that? Perhaps the short story (and especially female authors) are on the rise again. I’m hearing that reading a short story during lunchtime is becoming a trend. So what are you reading for lunch today? I’m reading A Trial for Murder by Charles Dickens.

    1. And I, in turn, have just become a follower of yours! I’m a shorts writer myself, though I might be considered more an essayist. Or a creep. Either way, love your stuff!

  37. Hey Sasha; I just found your blog today. Interesting post; I’m not that familiar with the apparently dubious reputation of short stories, though I think I can see where you’re coming from in terms of their percieved awkwardness as a form. The novel is definitely the more respectable beast, or so it would seem.

    This is a bit of shameless self-promotion on my part, but if you’re as keen on short stories as you say, I’ve posted a number of them on my blog, [www.skyeyemachine.com], and I’m looking to continue adding more ongoingly. Maybe you’d be interested to take a look? If nothing else, perhaps your critical eye can tell where I might have mucked up in my work. ;)

    I’m looking forward to taking a closer look at your other posts. Cheers~ ^)^-^)a

  38. Short stories are refreshing and nice if you’re seeking the ability to access the full scope of a story while lacking the time, attention span, or wider perspective of taking in a whole novel. Alice Munro is a master of the form, and I love reading Roberto Bolaño’s stories too (as always).

  39. […] we’re on the subject of short stories: My write-up on Lysley Tenorio‘s debut collection of short stories, Monstress, plus an […]

  40. Reblogged this on mirkosol's Blog and commented:
    Short everything …

  41. Bolano and Salinger. Case closed.

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