the short story: small fry of the literary world?

I love literature. I love reading. I especially love reading good fiction (even as I especially dislike reading bad fiction). Why then, in my life, have I been ambivalent about the short story as a literary genre?

As a child I loved to write stories, and all these were necessarily “short” stories. But as I grew up I came to read works that were longer and longer. It was a mark of achievement and maturity in reading to be able to read “chapter books,” and then, eventually, fully grown-up up books that were read by adults. I remember in grade 4, that is, at age 10, trying to read Gulliver’s Travels, a paperback copy of which resided in the bookcase in our living room, and reluctantly having to bail on it a short way in. It was just too hard. But within a year I was starting to gulp down the James Bond books that were in my father’s bookshelves with full comprehension, as well as enjoyment of their “adult” content (if James Bond’s exploits can be classed as adult). Could it be that short stories, even those written for adults, now struck me, subliminally, as a more “kiddie” form, just because they were less substantial and required less commitment to read?

Certainly, the novel form allowed a writer to explore scenes, characters, and ideas in more depth, and the plot of a novel had to be more complex to sustain its greater length. Then there was the enjoyment factor: you could immerse yourself in a novel in a way that you could not with a short story. If I was enjoying a novel, I didn’t want it to end; the sheer size of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of its positive attributes, in my teenage eyes. By contrast, if you were enjoying a short story, that enjoyment would soon be over. All in all, short stories were the small fry of the literary world, while novels were the big game. And by temperament I liked to think big.

As I recall, it was reading Dubliners by James Joyce that started turning my thinking around. Electrified at age 18 by reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I turned to the next thing by him that I could get my hands on. This was an old paperback copy of Dubliners that was, again, sitting in the living-room bookcase. I plunged in, and was rewarded with the same superb prose and penetrating vision that I had enjoyed in the novel, and even some moments that were almost as arresting as the climax of Portrait. When I read “Araby,” about a boy who discovers that he is in love with a friend’s sister, and who ventures to a local fair to try to get a gift for her, it was as though my own soul had become a cathedral, or had been revealed as one, with the words and feelings of the story echoing in its dark, hidden, and unreachable places. I was left in no doubt that the short story, as a literary form, was a powerful means of expression in the hands of an artist.

And from the writer’s standpoint, this was a boon, for short stories, compared with novels, are doable. Or so I thought. Certainly, writing a work of 3,000 words must be easier than writing one of, say, 80,000 words. And it was in the glow of this newly kindled enthusiasm that I started trying to come up with an idea for a short story of my own. I felt tremendous creative energy within me, and wanted to announce my arrival, my birth as a literary artist. I don’t remember how long I racked my brain for an idea, but before too long I did become inspired by an idea, tremendously inspired, and the result was “The Hermit,” which is even now available right here on my website. Although I worried and fussed over its composition, spending weeks in sessions at my drawing-board under my bedroom window, I wrote it in a state of passion and creative exaltation. I felt that I was finally answering my own literary vocation.

In all, writing it was a wonderful experience. Finally, Paul Vitols, the literary artist, was born!

Now what?

That was my problem. How was I, as a newly born short-story writer, going to follow up “The Hermit”? While the outer details of “The Hermit” were not autobiographical, except insofar as they were about a university student, its inner life—its heart—was autobiographical. My character, Alex, was crossing a watershed in his inner life, just as I felt I was crossing a watershed in mine. But how many watersheds are there in the life of a young man, or of anyone? What else could I write as a short story?

I tried to keep the feeling going. I was a real writer now; I needed to write. So I jumped in and wrote another story. It was also semi-autobiographical, based on events in my trip to Mexico with a friend the year before. As a way of trying to progress, and not simply trying to repeat what I had done with “The Hermit,” I made the story experimental, playing with the time-sequence of events in it. But the result was underwhelming. In fact, I can’t exactly remember what happened in the story, or even what its title was. I don’t even know if I’ve still got a copy of it.

I had a vague feeling that even if I had in some way, by writing “The Hermit,” “arrived” as a serious writer, that fact did not in itself guarantee that whatever I wrote would be any good. Arrived or not, it was my responsibility to come up with good ideas for stories, of whatever size, and then execute them well. Or, as they say (or used to say) in the music biz, you’re only as good as your last record.

I started to see that, even though a short story is much smaller and simpler than a novel, it still needs to be a good idea and written well. It needs a sufficient reason to exist, beyond the writer’s desire to be a writer. And if some short stories are able to have a profound effect on a reader, as “Araby” had had on me, that fact may point to their being more difficult to write than a novel, at least from a certain point of view. “Araby” is roughly 2,200 words long, just slightly more than double the length of this blog post so far. Joyce achieved his effects with maximum economy of means. This succinctness is itself the mark of an accomplished artist.

Another feature of short stories is that they emphasize the story aspect of writing. Novels are often full of things other than the story: descriptive passages, internal monologues of characters, even editorializing by the narrator. A lot of flesh and, yes, fat can hang on the skeleton of the story. Short stories don’t have that luxury. The armature of the story is always close to the surface and takes up much of the space; it needs to be well crafted if the story is to have its effect. With the beauty of a short story depending on the beauty of its skeleton, its writer has nowhere to hide from the demanding and difficult task of storytelling. And the story guru, Robert McKee, asserts that while literary talent is relatively common, storytelling talent is rare. The writer of a short story is, therefore, compared with the novelist, putting himself forward to be judged by a more exacting standard.

As a student of storytelling, I now enjoy reading short stories more than I ever have before, partly because they give me the chance to swallow a whole story in a single sitting, even though I’m a slow reader. Lately I’ve pulled out collections of stories from my own bookcase, works by Mavis Gallant and John Cheever, looking to see what I can learn about story structure and genre.

As for my own short-story writing career, I have written only a few in my life thus far. I intend to polish them and publish them, as I have “The Hermit.” I still like to think big—it’s a character trait—and so large projects are still the ones that fire my imagination. But there’s something pure about writing a short story, and if I can come up with a good idea, I will happily write another. And I will do it longhand, on lined paper, which is still the surest path to the best prose.

The Hermit is not available in bookstores, but you can get it for free (along with other bonuses, previews and discounts) when you join my mailing list. 

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