A long post on a short topic

Thrice in the last month I’ve found myself extolling the virtues of the Short Story to someone or other who was sceptical about their merit. This is rather similar to preaching the merits of Classical music, or Silent Movies. There are many fine examples of each, but equally there is a lot of chafe. And if there are more poorly written short stories out there than novels, well, it’s somewhat quicker and easier to write a bad short story than a bad novel.

The most common criticism that I hear though isn’t really strictly a matter of quality, but of quantity. The line is almost exactly phrased thus: “By the time I get into it, and know what’s going on, it’s over.” I suspect this is largely a response to O’Henry type tales which are simple tales well told. At the end of such tales, unless they are extremely brief, you tend to think “and then what happened?” And so what would have made a compelling hook for a longer work transmutes into frustration over the abortion of promise.

An early conclusion you could draw from this kind of criticism, when justified, and upon really closely examining the structure of most longer works, is that the central ideas expressed in a short story are often sufficient to have sustained a novel. An example could be something like Mean Spirit by Will Kingdom. It’s a 400 page novel whose plot is that a superstitious gangster has murdered one of his lieutenants after giving the guy strict instructions to make contact from the other side. A charlatan medium tries to cash in on this arrangement and merriment ensues. The core idea of the story is comfortably encompassed within a sharply written short story: what you get beyond that is largely the pleasure of seeing things unfold. The difference is not in the core entities being explore, but in the detail of that exploration.

For myself, I tend to find these kinds of novels unsatisfying. A large part of what I don’t like about the modern crime-thriller novels I’ve read is that the components needed to solve the mystery are few and easily juxtaposed, but you must wade through many hundreds of irrelevancies to get to that kernel of truth. Much more enjoyable are those novels whose complex plots cannot so easily be summarized, and where extracting any kind of reduced version leaves out something crucial.

But even most of those novels can be divided into a sequence of short episodes. Taking even something as long and complex as Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, you can discern numerous episodes that could be abstracted into short stories. To understand the latter stories you might have to read many of the earlier ones, but I think an alert audience prepared to take exposition on faith could find these novels rewarding if so divided. I suspect that his collection of short stories A Second Chance at Eden fails to really inspire is because if the component stories were any good, he’d have incorporated them into the main monster; certainly he wasn’t shy about dragging in any stray idea that caught his fancy, much to that series’ detriment.

So much for the novel: Short Stories inflated beyond proportion, or merely focused anthologies of Short Stories with some narration obfuscating the truth of their construction. Let’s turn to the base components.

Fraught as all such generalizations are, I’m comfortable to argue a separate case for each of about 5 different types of short story, which occur to me as the following:
– Fragments. Stories which read like a series of novel excerpts.
– Icons/Miniatures. Stories where some idea is given simple expression in few words.
– Embedments. The literary equivalent of a clip show for which there is no originating series.
– Parables. Stories intended to enact a perspective on some issue of philosophy.
– Fables and the rest.

One fragmentary writer whose name should be near the top of any Fantasy fan’s mind is Fritz Leiber. It seems to me that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser exist now more as a vague notion of fantasy characters than as well-known and loved entities, somewhat like Elric. They are all now feeling their age, I think. I can’t recall the last time I was at someone’s house and saw Swords against Deviltry casually tossed upon a coffee table. I will not banish your ignorance! Go and read these iconic anthologies, and from them infer the details of what I mean by “fragmentary” short stories for yourself.

The most interesting case to put to someone for the value of a short story is the Icon/Miniature. In essence it’s a story that is the expression of an idea. It is usually nine tenths an exposition, with only one tenth action. The only decent story in A Second Chance At Eden, “Sonnie’s Edge” is a brilliant example of this. There is only one single plot action: where Sonnie reveals her edge to someone by showing them, and the audience.

Embedments are the novel-of-short-stories taken to extremes. Something like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 really are just an odd collection of incidents and accidents, rather than a cohesively structured arc-story such as we might expect from a novel.

Parables are almost the inverse of icons/miniatures. Through a short series of actions, rather than exposition that explodes into a conclusion, they explore a point. A lot of Grace Paley’s stories seem like this to me, but the utter king of this mode of writing is Raymond Carver. His short and brutal collection What we talk about when we talk about love is my firm answer to those whose argument is that a short story is too small and insignificant a thing to carry real emotional power.

Trying to summarize the nature of those stories without the focused structure of the rest seems a bit futile. But those stories which just try to be engaging about a simple human experience have only the talents of the specific author to commend them. Some, like the remainder of Paley’s writing, are excerpts of genius. Some, like the lamentable short efforts of Richard Ford, invite a kind of luke warm experience. Ford’s longer novels, particularly the Sportswriter and Independence Day somehow transform a meandering and detailed account of an ordinary man’s long weekend into thoughtful and insightful musings, but it just does not work in miniature.

I hope that I’ve thrown some light on why the Short Story might merit your attention; why it’s not simply “too short” or over “too quickly”. It is short, that’s true, but it can bring the best parts of literature into sharp focus. Novels are like mines. You need time and patience, and the simple volume of material can make spotting the gems difficult. Short story anthologies are like a jewellery store. You might not like everything for sale, but typically you at least know what you’re getting.

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7 Responses to A long post on a short topic

  1. giffydoll says:

    I personally enjoy short stories. Beau and I bought and really liked a collection of Sherlock Holmes recently. Twas fun. I am now reading the HP Lovecraft Omnibus 3 The Haunter in the Dark. Is good so far πŸ™‚

  2. mr_orgue says:

    I’ve never been a big reader of short stories. (Or writer of, come to think.) Not sure why. I am completely convinced as to their merits as literature, and the entertainment I’ve scored from them is at least on a par with the entertainment I’ve got from novels. But still – not a big reader. It’s a conscious thing, too, I know that I will steer away from a short story collection and towards a longer work.

    Is odd, is.

    • mashugenah says:

      I know exactly what you mean. I bought Hanif Kurieshi’s collection Midnight All Day to read on the plane on the way back; but in Singapore I bought Gaiman’s Neverwhere to read instead at the last minute, and haven’t opened the anthology.

      Mind you, the blurb in the book really doesn’t sell itself when you’re tired and sad:The subjects of these stories are lonely, entangled in triangular relationships, lost, young but already burnt-out, disillusioned, emotionally afraid, or ‘fighting to preserve oneself’, for ‘Love could be torn down in a minute like taking a stick to a spider’s web.’

  3. evie_fae says:

    You missed the single killer positive attribute of short stories! If you’re the kind of person who wants to read a little before bed, anyway. If you really can’t afford to stay up late, because the novel you’re reading simply refused to allow you to put it down, you’re never in any danger of the same from a short story. You read it, it’s over, and then you can happily go to sleep. They’re the perfect bedtime reading material. πŸ˜„

    • mashugenah says:

      You know what the irony of that is? I’ve got book two of the Lankhmar series beside my bed for exactly that reason! πŸ™‚

    • giffydoll says:

      That’s why I love them too! πŸ™‚

      Although some short story collections are too good and I’m all, just one more, *then* I’ll turn out the light πŸ˜‰

    • giffydoll says:

      That’s why I love them too! πŸ™‚

      Although some short story collections are too good and I’m all, just one more, *then* I’ll turn out the light πŸ˜‰

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