The Short Story

Entry by: rclayr

22nd May 2015
The Short Story: Mainstay and Mystery
One of the more curious anomalies in the world of current fiction is the place held by the short story. In a way, the short story has been around a lot longer than any other form of prose. Dating back to the Greeks (Aesop) Romans (Ovid), short prose pieces have always been a kind of foundation of literary utterance.
The short story finds connective tendrils reaching out in all kinds of different directions. It is directly related to the anecdote, of course, or the joke or clever tale, and its structure, traditionally, follows precisely the same tripartite construction: The Hook, The Set-Up, the Punch-Line. Anyone who has ever made up a “Man walks into a bar” joke has written a short story. For that matter, anyone who has ever walked into the break room and said, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to work,” has made one, as well.
More elaborately, of course, the short story has any number of venerated relations, The fabliaux, the parable, the homily, the lay, the folk tale, fairy tales, fables are all, technically speaking, short stories. Most of the stories of the Bible and other ancient documents are more short story than poetry, so are many ballads. They have the same structure, the same sense of brevity, and in most cases the same sense of what James Joyce identified as “epiphany.”
Boccacio and Chaucer, Mallory and Rabelais all contributed to the formalization of the short story, Jonathan Swift enlarged on it in a sense, and the chapters of Don Quixote are also really short stories.
We don’t really see the emergence of the short story as a literary form—so recognized—until the nineteenth century. Without a doubt, the masters of it in that epoch were responding to a technically-dictated necessity, tailoring their short fictions to fit into the principal publishing organs’—literary magazines—length requirements. As most writers in the period were paid by the word, then the short form was particularly attractive to publishers, and it had the unintended effect of compelling writers to compress their ideas into that quick, almost instant format that we have come to recognize as the short story.
Although all cultures have produced great, even magnificent short story writers, I would contend that the form is peculiarly characteristic of American fiction, that is, the fiction of the United States. Britain has Dickens and Kipling, of course, and France has Gide, and the Russians have Gogol and Chekhov, but the Americans managed, somehow, to adapt the form and make it their own. From Washington Irving’s Tales of the Wayside Inn to John Updike or Annie Proulx, sensational short fiction has always resonated well in the American literary canon. Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most famous of American short story writers, although, to be honest, she’s Canadian, from that “other” America. South Americans are also very good at the form, particularly Gabriel Marquez, but numerous other Latin writers have very nearly perfected the form. It may be that the short story, at least over the past hundred years or so, is an American specialization.
Edgar Allen Poe, regarded by many (particularly and somewhat oddly, the French) as the “Father of Detective Fiction,” perfected the form and set a pattern that is still regarded as very nearly sacrosanct among emerging writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne called his stories “Romances,” and so did Herman Melville, and many literary minds would aver, today, that their short fiction was far more powerful and enduring than their longer works. That’s arguable, but it’s an intriguing point. Actually, when one evaluates The Scarlet Letter or even Moby Dick, one finds that the episodic nature of these longer works actually resembles short fiction in structure, with the former more or less being a “very long short story” and the latter being a pastiche of short, self-contained tales.
Carlos Baker once opined during a lecture I heard him give that, in his view, American writing would not be known so much for the novelists it produced but rather for its short fiction writers. He was talking about Ernest Hemingway, of course, who is generally known more as a novelist, but whose short stories—In Our Time, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, etc.—tend to offer a quality of writing that is not found throughout his longer works. It’s noteworthy that the novel that ultimately won him the Pulitzer Prize and probably cemented his Nobel Prize was The Old Man and the Sea, a cutting, actually from an unfinished longer work. It has all the properties of a great short story and almost none of a great novel.
Henry James’ short work is also almost always regarded as superior to his longer fiction, and if one looks carefully at The Great Gatsby, one has to concede that while it is usually regarded as a novel, it more closely resembles a short story in structure. Fitzgerald’s other short stories are truly minor masterpieces, something one cannot say about his other novels. But the same may be true of many other writers such as Louisa May Alcott, for example. Other writers such as Stephen Crane, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Katherine Ann Porter were known for their short fiction almost exclusively.
Actually, it is a debatable point as to whether the novel, as a form, is a legitimate literary enterprise. Heretical as this may be to aver, consider that the novel has no consistent and recognizable form or structure. If one took some uninitiated intelligence and presented “it” with a stack of books containing the following: Pamela, The Pickwick Papers, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Journey to the Hebrides, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights, Far from the Madding Crowd, Crime and Punishment, Sense and Sensibility, The Golden Bowl, Ulysses, The Sargasso Sea, The Awakening, Silas Marner, The Grapes of Wrath, The Horse’s Mouth, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Under the Volacano, Our Man in Havana, The Catcher in the Rye, The Jewel in the Crown, Passage to India, Jacob’s Room, Lost in the Fun House, Maurice, Breakfast of Champions, U.S.A., The Bridges of Madison County, and Gravity’s Rainbow; and asked “it” to find something in common, in a literary sense, among all of them—or many others, “it” would probably be utterly flummoxed.
Paul Scott, the famous British novelist and literary agent once told me that the only definition of a novel that made any sense to him at all was that it “was a large collection of pages, consecutively numbered with printing on both sides, bound hard on one side and loose on the other three.” There may be some ironic wisdom in that. The point, of course, is that there is no consensus about what a novel is or should be or look like. We all know what one is, but definitively defining it is an insurmountable challenge.
The “well-made story” contains a highly visible and manifestly recognizable pattern, though, and almost everyone know what it is. And there are rules. A well-made story has one main character and only one; it may have a “character of focus” and a narrator, and the narrator may ultimately turn out to be the protagonist, but that is a device. There still is only one main character. It has one plot and only one plot. That plot begins at a certain point, increases in tension (rising action) until it reaches a climax, after which it winds down (denouement) quickly. That’s about it. That pattern will fit about 99% of all short stories written, and using it as an outline is a great way for any writer to begin one. In a way, it is the only form (now that modern theater—since Shakespeare, at least—has gone its own way) that conforms entirely to Aristotle’s unities. If there’s a departure, it’s usually with regard to the Unity of Time, although most short stories take place in a very short space of time, compared to the typical novel or even full-length play. Some stories also violate the other unities, such as Crane’s “The Open Boat,” for example, but these tend to be exceptions that test the rule.
There is really no prescribed proper length for a short story. Publishing has imposed standard limits on it that are artificial and have to do with available space for printing material in a given issue. Some short stories, though, are quite long, running as much as 50,000 words; some are quite short, as short as 500-1000 words. We have special names for the longer ones: “novella,” or “novelette”; and for the shorter ones: “flash fiction” or “short-shorts.” But they all somehow conform to that tripartite pattern, they usually offer only one narrative voice, one point of view, and…and this is the most important feature, they offer that famous epiphany.
It is axiomatic that the main character of a short story be in some way manifestly different at the end of the story from his/her condition at the beginning. The difference can be visible, physical, tangible; it can also be internal, emotional, psychological or philosophical. Or it can be all of these and more. The main thing is that there has been a change, and that change is manifest because of the events related in the short story.
I am not sure that Baker is right. There is William Faulkner, after all, and Cormac McCarthy (who might be the same person), and it’s hard to discount some of the great novels Americans have produced. But there’s no question that the short story is a strength in American writing. And this leads to one more question…if they’re so great, why aren’t they more popular?
It’s virtually impossible for an unknown writer to find a publisher for a collection of short fiction. A number of years ago, a collection of short fiction—largely work that was published while the writer was “developing”—followed one or two novels, so the publishing house could capitalize on the author’s name. One can look at the careers of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Stephen King, John Updike, etc. to find this pattern of professional activity. Today, a collection is still often a follow-up to a successful novel or two, but it’s very rare to see a collection of short fiction being offered by a writer who has not first established a reputation as a novelist. The reason for publishers’ reluctance to publish short fiction—sometimes even by established novelists—is because, oddly, short stories don’t sell.
Why this is verifiably so is a mystery. One would think that the short story would be ideally suited to a modern lifestyle. Consider: A short story can usually be read in one sitting; therefore, no investment of hours and days of reading, such as a novel might require, is needed. A single story is a great way to pass the time while waiting—in a doctor’s office, a government bureau, to have one’s car repaired, for a bus, etc—since it can be completed in the interval. Short fiction takes about as long to read as watching a half-hour television program, maybe slightly longer, fitting the shortened attention span of today’s literate citizen. When one buys a collection of short fiction—by a single author or by several writers—one can be sure that at least some, maybe most, will appeal; if some don’t, then on-balance, the investment still isn’t wasted; if you buy a novel and don’t like it, then the purchase has been squandered. Short stories are generally satisfying all by themselves. They can be easily shared, and they tend to resonate and be recalled for a long time after finishing. This isn’t always the case with longer works, which are often too complicated to remember in total and are sometimes too confusing and convoluted to invite comfortable recall.
Short stories also cut across all fiction categories. Crime, detective, western, science fiction all have short story writers of the very first quality. Romance, mystery, horror, thrillers, spy stories, and children’s stories are plentiful. Indeed, in some of these categories, the short story is what popularized them more than the novel ever did—western and especially