In defense of short stories

October 31, 2010

I used to steer clear of short stories, for the same reasons I steered clear of poetry. I was told every word must count, because it is a short form. So as writers we would (presumably) weigh words out like a miser and polish them before putting them on the page;

My favourite short story? Glad you asked. Cat in the Rain by Ernest Hemingway.

and, as readers, examine the words and turn them to the light, like precious stones. It all seemed a bit precious and earnest.

After writing and totally ballsing up two novels, I decided to write some short fiction. But, interestingly, I found that certain chapters of one of my ballsed up novels stood alone as perfectly good (in the relative sense of my own creations) short stories. And it made me wonder if there is anything so different about this form after all.

After extensive research, writing and reading short stories, I have come to this conclusion (cue drum roll): Short stories are shorter than novels. That’s really all there is to say on the subject. They can appear to be a fragment of a life, something plucked from the stream; a sketch; or a moment of crisis. Anything, actually. Just pretty short. Inevitably, they’ll have one storyline and will lack the subplots of novels, because there simply isn’t room. But to look at rules in short stories is restrictive in my opinion, though you might look at tendencies.

One other thing. I think the reason people have trouble with short stories is because when you enter any new fictional world, the first few pages can often be disorientating or unsettling, while you find your feet with the narrative voice and the world in question. With a novel, no problem: you’re talking about perhaps five per cent of your reading time as hard work. With short stories, you’re required to be bewildered and work a little harder every time you begin a new story. Unless, of course, you’re reading a collection with a similar narrative voice throughout, in a single locale. That makes things a little easier.

Anyway, if anyone’s interested, here’s a few masterpieces of the form, from the top of my head.

John Cheever

Cheever is my current favourite writer. His stories have an easy grace about them that can appear deceptive at first; and yet as you read on you realise his subjects are always, and only, the important things. Love, disillusion, nostalgia (yes, and drinking till you wet your pants). The Swimmer is about a man who decides to return home from a party via his neighbours’ swimming pools, swimming a length of one, getting out, walking to the next, swimming etc etc. And yet in truth it is about something far more disturbing. The Tallboy is a stunning story with an unpromising subject: a piece of furniture. And yet it evokes beautifully the dangers of wallowing in the past, of attempting to bring the deceased back to life through treasured objects. These are beautiful stories with the ring of truth, told in the reassuring voice of an artist who is easy and comfortable in his craft.

Chekhov

I’m not sure if these stories came before or after his turn in Star Trek, but Chekhov is the name that comes up time and time again as the consummate miniaturist and author of a life (and accompanying crisis) in a few pages. I find some of his stories a little slow – for a great Russian read (or Ukranian to be precise) Gogol’s Dead Souls is funny as hell. But back to Chekhov, you have, of course, to read The Lady and the Dog, which is a beautiful, sad story of a sordid love affair which seems to be not only about this particular affair, but all the sad, sordid relationships of the world. (And this wider, metaphysical quality runs through many Chekhov stories.)

Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find is a hypnotic story which brings a shocking change in tone to a tale that begins with the mundanities of a family outing. A bit like Hitchcock’s Psycho. Another great story is The Artificial Nigger, which is about two country men coming to town, and is full of Biblical resonance. Her stories are set in the American South and accentuate the grotesque; there is something cartoonish about them, and yet also authentic and true.

Denis Johnson

There are far too many writers doing that drink-drugs-hopeless-sordid-barfly thing, yet Denis Johnson is a master, evoking a desperate world of rusted Americana and hopeless lives in a chilling, yet extremely readable way. You never feel he is trying to bullshit or impress you, but rather explain calmly and quietly a world on the margins that is, at times horrifying; at others, beautiful.

Raymond Carver

The writer who spawned a million inferior imitators, with his pinched, minimalist prose about the often mundane lives of Americans. It sounds unpromising, but Carver is the writer who is deeply poetic without appearing to write poetically. They are wonderful, beguiling stories because you will rarely find the beauty in a single line, but only in the wider context. In that way, the art of Raymond Carver is something almost invisible, hiding behind the words, but there all the same. One other thing: the simplicity of the prose makes these stories so effortlessly readable. (That’s always something worth mentioning after waxing lyrical about the style.)

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