It’s a legitimate question. Why read short stories? Why write them? They don’t have a large audience (though the audience that is there tends to be ravenously dedicated to the form). Collections of short fiction barely outsell poetry, which is not operating anywhere near bestseller territory. Publishers are leery of short fiction and must be persuaded to put their weight behind what is sure to be a loss leader on any year-end P-and-L sheet. (The poet Jonathan Ball, who has a story collection due later this year with Book*hug Press, has said he finds it easier to get a book of poetry accepted by a publisher than a book of short fiction; to understand the irony, see above.)
It is true that a story with the ability and timing to tap into the popular zeitgeist may go viral online; this is certainly not the norm. (And not incidentally, many readers of “Cat Person” were so jolted by the emotional honesty in the piece that they mistook it for a memoir or work of creative non-fiction.) Story collections occasionally win national literary prizes and, even more occasionally, short-fiction writers are honoured with a Nobel Prize in Literature. But the form is largely ignored or derided by the majority of the reading public.
When asked why they don’t like stories, many readers claim to prefer losing themselves in a novel. One common complaint is that with a collection, no sooner has a reader become invested in a character or a situation than the story is over and an entirely new set of circumstances is on offer. Mavis Gallant made the argument that this arises from reading stories the wrong way: stories are not meant to be read headlong, one after another. Rather, they are best consumed individually, given a chance to grow and breathe before the reader moves on to the next. “Read one. Shut the book. Read something else,” Gallant said. “Come back later. Stories can wait.”
What Gallant was urging is patience. The brevity of the form is deceptive, it belies the weight of submerged meaning that the best short fiction carries. Because stories are short, they are necessarily concentrated and concise, their language and style stripped to their bare essence. A minimalist like Raymond Carver could never have flourished in the novel form because it is antithetical to his project of finding meaning in the sparest language. Ernest Hemingway’s classic “Hills Like White Elephants” is a masterpiece of elision, in which what is left out is as important as – if not infinitely more important than – what gets put in.
This rigorous attention to language highlights a category error among those who would view the short story as the red-headed stepchild of the novel. True, both are written in prose, but this is where the close connection ends. In its paring away of extraneous detail, its insistence on metaphor and indirection, its focus on a single moment in time without paying attention to the larger arc of a character’s life, a short story has much greater affinity with poetry than with the novel.
“Basically, the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length. It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling,” wrote Frank O’Connor in his classic 1963 volume The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Because a short story relies on concatenation and limited scope regarding its subject and characters, O’Connor suggests, its form must be infinitely malleable; each author will need to discover a new point of entry into the story and its individual frame of reference. “Accordingly, the storyteller differs from the novelist in this: he must be much more of a writer, much more of an artist.”
What O’Connor seems to be suggesting is that stories are more difficult than novels – more difficult for the writer and, consequently, more difficult for the reader. The story makes demands that the novel does not and, conversely, offers a writer nowhere to hide. Where a novelist can afford to allow certain sections of a work to list, knowing there is time enough to right the ship before bringing it to shore, in a story every word counts. Poe’s notion of single effect applies not just to mood or atmosphere but to language and syntax. Every word of every sentence must be put to work to address or develop the story’s purpose or movement. Like poems, the language of a story is implicative, pointing to meaning while never explicitly stating it.
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.” A story, again like a poem, must be full and integral in itself. It carries within it everything necessary to understand its meaning or implication, though that may not be enacted in the way a reader of novels has become used to. Stories withhold and suggest, they tease and imply.
“My personal definition of the form is that it represents a concentration of the imagination, not an expansion,” writes Joyce Carol Oates. “[N]o matter its mysteries or experimental properties, it achieves closure – meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader can understand why.”
The adjective is significant. A reader of short fiction must be attentive: it is not a literary form that allows for distraction or less than complete focus. The reader of short fiction must be an active participant, not a passive receptacle. The reader must work to draw connections, recognize and comprehend metaphoric language, and remain open to different approaches to character and incident beyond the straightforward naturalism that is the default setting for most novels.
And this seems like the best answer to the question, why stories? Stories offer a different kind of pleasure than other forms of literature, a pleasure that is not restricted or curtailed by a story’s relatively small size. The form is malleable and protean, capacious and mysterious. It offers writers vast opportunity to experiment with language and structure; it offers readers the opportunity for reinvention and imaginative calisthenics. Its rewards are large and its potential unlimited.
Why stories? Because: stories.