Monday, October 23, 2017

What Exactly is a Short Story?

These last few days, theTeaching Authors have shared their admiration and wisdom about the indomitable short story. With special congratulations to our own TeachingAuthor Carla Killough McClafferty on having a story featured in the brand new collection, 30 People Who Changed the World: Fascinating Bite-Sized Essays from Award-Winning Writers--Intriguing People Through the Ages: From Imhotep to Malala edited by Jean Reynolds. Short stories are Mary Ann’s guilty pleasures.  Esther raises four cheers for the short story.

I have to admit, I am not a big reader of short stories, although I’m not exactly sure why. In fact, I'm not so sure I know what a short story is. O yes, I’ve read Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. I’ve even published a few, working with the mighty Marion Zimmer Bradley when I first started out, many years ago.

But what exactly is a short story? I mean, I certainly understand the more cursory elements of the short story versus the novel. Short stories are, well, short. The character comes for a visit, stays for an evening, and complains about a particular problem. But then just as she is getting interesting, she leaves.

As Eudora Welty once said, “A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

 It turns out, the short story is becoming popular again. In her 2016 article, The Rise of the Short Story, Laurie Hertzel examines the reasons why the short story is not only gaining popularity, but enjoying a new heyday not seen in decades.

But, what exactly is a short story? 

“Writers who do short shorts need to be especially bold. They stake everything on a stroke of inventiveness. Sometimes they have to be prepared to speak out directly, not so much in order to state a theme as to provide a jarring or complicating commentary. The voice of the writer brushes, so to say, against his flash of invention. And then, almost before it begins, the fiction is brought to a stark conclusion - abrupt, bleeding, exhausting. This conclusion need not complete the action; it has only to break it off decisively.” -- Irving Howe

“It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” – Raymond Carver 

“A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, ‘Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can’t forget me, there’s still more to write!’ Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect inside me in a very natural, organic way.”Haruki Murakami

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

"I seem to turn out stories that violate the discipline of the short story form and don't obey the rules of progression for novels. I don't think about a particular form: I think more about fiction, let's say a chunk of fiction." -- Alice Munro

“I’ll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”O. Henry

Anita Desai (July 2017) reflects on how tales briefly told are in the habit of returning, that "... a short story is not a failed novel any more than a novella is an extended short story. Each has an altogether different set of rules and effects. Length is one of them, but lengths vary wildly. As Hortense Calisher said, “How long should a short story be? As long as a piece of string. I mean – to tie up the parcel with.”

 "Instead of those long stretches in which a novelist becomes stranded, the short-story writer must launch forth on what is a high-wire act, refusing to look back or down into the abyss, running the length of it at a sprint so as not to lose balance: quick, quick before you fall!" -- Anita Desai

So, it seems a short story is an organic, boldly told magical trick resembling a high wire act that stretches to the end of the universe and back. And if it makes you feel something, especially if it breaks your heart, it's good.

Does that sound about right?

Bobbi Miller


Yvonne Ventresca said...

Love your in-depth analysis of the form.

Carmela Martino said...

Glad to know short stories are making a comeback. Thanks so much for this, Bobbi. I like your definition!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Yvonne --and congratulations on your short story success!

And thank you, Carmela!

Teresa Robeson said...

I definitely think that sounds about right (and I particularly love Gaiman and O. Henry's quotes). I love short stories myself, reading and writing. I think partly for me, it's because I have some ADD and the short form is perfect for my wandering mind. :)

Bobbi Miller said...

Teresa: Those were my favorite quotes too! Great minds -- again!! Thank you for your kind words!