February 21st, 2013

A brief for short stories

I’ve never been all that keen on novels, except for those novels on which I’ve been very keen. The latter tend to be classics: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Moby Dick, 1984, with a coupla Russian guys and some random others thrown in.

But I’ve always loved short stories. Loved, loved, loved them. In fact, most of my favorite fiction has always been short stories, and that’s even before the internet shortened my attention span and age reduced my patience.

I love John Updike, but I love his short stories rather than his novels. I prefer Nabokov’s stories to his novels, as well, and the same for Isak Dinesen, Katherine Anne Porter, Jhumpa Lahiri, and even, if truth be told, Tolstoi. I’m fond of Shirley Jackson’s stories (although they’re probably too creepy to justify the word “fond”), and even though I think Kundera’s novel “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” is a masterpiece, it actually follows something closer to the form of a series of short stories connected somewhat in theme but well able to stand alone.

I’ve often wondered why I’m drawn to the short story form. I know that I’ve never even considered writing a novel, although I’ve written poetry, essays, and to a lesser extent short stories, for the greater part of my life. I’ve heard it said that poets and essayists have in common the fact that they liked compressed forms and language, and that’s probably at least one reason why I like short stories so much. Novels often seem to have long passages that are insufficiently interesting to me (yes, I know, I like Moby Dick, which specializes in that sort of thing—“everything you never wanted to know about the whaling industry,” but go figure).

All of the foregoing is by way of an introduction to this article, which claims that short stories are enjoying a renaissance because they go better with kindles and modern internet-formed sensibilities. Although my sensibility formed long before that, and I have yet to transition to a kindle although I own one, I’m happy to hear that the short story is still very much alive and kicking:

15 Responses to “A brief for short stories”

  1. Mac Says:

    What, no Flannery O’Connor?!?

    There’s a short story by Walter Moseley in a recent Atlantic which I greatly enjoyed, and in general I don’t care much for contemporary fiction. It’s very old-fashioned in a lot of ways, and the prose seems oddly clumsy, but it’s a good story, in the fundamental sense.

  2. Mac Says:

    Here it is. Actually the Dec ’12 issue. This was my first acquaintance with Moseley…oops, Mosley…who as you probably know is mainly a mystery writer.

  3. Susan Says:

    My best friend absolutely loves the acclaimed Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro (I’ve yet to read much of her). Thomas Pynchon, contrary to later form, wrote a very early collection of short stories which impressed me called “Slow Learner.” Also, among the best contemporary Italian writers who seem to prefer the genre I particularly recommend Gianni Celati’s “Voices from the Plains.”

  4. T Says:

    Got a Kindle for Xmas.

    I have been intermittently reading the short stories (Sherlock Holmes) of Arthur Conan Doyle which I first read over 40 years ago. I have shied away from the novels for now, which I have also downloaded primarily because I read at night after work and fear getting so engrossed that I can’t put it down. The short stories provide a complete literary ‘thought” in a reasonable time to allow for bed tonight and work tomorrow.

  5. M J R Says:

    Was always an O. Henry fan, since adolescence.

    Never mastered the ol’ attention span thingie (success all the way through grad school notwithstanding), and short stories were/are just the thing for the attention span challenged fiction side of my package!

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    Susan: I’ve read a lot of Alice Munro, but I’m not too keen. I do like some of Lorrie Moore, but she’s a bit too ironic for me.

    I love Lahiri, among newer writers of short stories.

  7. roc scssrs Says:

    I’ve always thought it must require a lot of hubris and ego to write a novel. A novel is a whole world created in often minute detail. But as you say, when it works, it really works.

  8. Jim Sullivan Says:

    I love Peter S. Beagle’s work, novels and short stories, but I prefer his short stories.

  9. kolnai Says:

    My brother and I have been trying to articulate the argument for this for a few years. We agreed that short stories, in general, are the ideal form for a fiction writer to hone his craft, and that the parsimony of a great short story gives it an elegance and simplicity that elevates its aesthetic value. My brother takes this so far that he believes that, after Shakespeare, George Orwell was the greatest English-language writer.

    Speaking for myself, there was a semester in college when I was a literature major, focused on Germans and Russians, but I quickly realized there was a problem when I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and found that to be far more about my heart than The Magic Mountain. I saw that my mind was far too pedantic for true literary cultivation, as was evidenced by the short stories I used to write for my lit. classes – they wound up being florid philosophical disquisitions with a few characters as mouthpieces and ciphers. My profs used to scribble beneath my grade, “This is a literature course; stop doing philosophy.”

    That being said, I try to stay cultivated, even if it is just at the level of the dilettante. And to that end short stories (Kleist, Nabokov, Orwell, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, etc.), plays (Chekhov, Ibsen, the Greek tragedians), and that old-timey narrative poetry (Horace, Pope, Coleridge, Swift, etc.) have been like literary sunlight to me.

    The short form is doubtlessly an aesthetic preference, as there is nothing intrinsically superior about parsimony and spare elegance. It’s possible to find a stance where the expansive, world-creating, rococo, Jean Paul kind of style is preferable to brevity and terseness. Still, there’s something about the higher probability of waste and self-indulgence in sprawling works that leads me to think that the short form is more likely to bring out the best in a writer. I’d even say that most people intuitively agree with this – it’s why, when push comes to shove, we excerpt the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers K and Before the Law from The Trial.

    The converse of this, however, might be that because of the difficulty of creating a sprawling work with the same “logographic necessity” as a short work, the lengthy masterpiece is the rarer, perhaps superior, accomplishment.

    Still, in this day and age, where waste, superfluity and self-indulgence are the only games in town – not just in art but in politics and culture and personal life – nothing is more necessary than the short story, even if we omit the time constraints we all operate under (there’s just no time to sit around and savor War and Peace). It is the literary analogue of balancing the budget and shrinking the size of government – it maximizes “entrepreneurship,” first, because the writer cannot take cover behind a thick fog (a “federal register,” if you will) of words; and, second, it forces the writer to amputate everything strictly unnecessary.

    Of course, that’s the ideal. It is more than possible – it is reality – for self-indulgence and waste to take over the short form as well, what we might imagine as an Obama-approach to literature: take up the style of a lover of balanced finances and entrepreneurship while engaging in behavior that reveals the opposite.

    Still, better that the corrupters of taste do it concisely than at length.

  10. Richard Says:

    One benefit of shorts is that there are so many of them. Plenty of room for unexpected jewels.
    Just because, I hunted up a volume of Jacland Marmur’s shorts of surface action in the Pacific. He was a pre-war pulp writer and, with the Saturday Evening Post audience in mind and a different culture, his stories in Sea Duty are gems. The conversation between a sailor and a nurse while they wait to see if he has to kill her….
    The small, obscure world of the Filipino steward is as precious to him as any of the other millions destroyed by war. Why officers get the big bucks–has to do with flooding a magazine–and sometimes drink to excess.
    The foreshadowing when a signalman at Jutland, anticipating the birth of his first child, asks why it’s got to be a man with a crooked brain–his grandfather was a quarter gunner on the old Victory at Trafalgar–and now a crooked arm–Kaiser W. had a deformed arm–.
    You never know.
    Kipling, aka The Master, had a poem looking for the big, three volume novel, phrased in the metaphor of a sailing ship.
    Problem with the novel is that stories are linear narratives, but novels have to be broken into chapters, with foreshadowing and unanswered qiuestions. IOW, artificially busted up and then reassembled to seem as if they were always a unitary piece. Extremely difficult. Shorts start at the beginning and run to the end without internal mechanisms to maintain the momentum. Easier to write.

  11. Irene Says:

    Short stories lovers who aren’t acquainted with V.S. Pritchett are in for a treat.

  12. Parker Says:

    I prefer big, fat. well written novels. The Name of the Wind is my current favorite.

  13. Matthew M Says:

    Henry Kitchell Webster, especially a collection title The Painted Scene. From the same universe as O Henry. Vivid characters. Lighthearted yet poignant plots.

  14. Nate Whilk Says:

    I love short stories! My earliest short stories were from Poe, English textbooks, Thurber, science fiction magazines (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, etc.). Also de Maupassant, Saki, Chesterton, classic horror stories.

    There are older classics in this collection: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2012/0120/Stephen-King-s-10-favorite-books/The-Golden-Argosy-edited-by-Van-H.-Cartmell-and-Charles-Grayson

  15. RickZ Says:

    Late here but one of the best short story writers I ever read was Ambrose Bierce, both his Civil War stories and his horror stories. I enjoy his superb and crisp writing as well as his twisty (twisted?) endings. An Occurance at Owk Creek Bridge is one of his more well-known short stories; a film of the story “won the 1963 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuP5kUQro40 His seminal work, The Devil’s Dictionary, isn’t too bad, either, although that’s by no means a short story.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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