31 Days of Stories 2021: Why read short stories?

Stack of short fiction collections and anthologies

Seriously, why bother? Especially when there is a proliferation of streaming services available – why not just spend one’s time binge-watching Netflix or Amazon Prime or Disney+? Why not hunker down with a doorstopper of a novel, something that would keep one occupied for a week or more and allow oneself the opportunity to get lost in a highly detailed world with a large cast of characters and interwoven plot strands? Why not read poetry, which provides an immediate and undiluted linguistic encounter with human emotion and crisis?

Sure enough, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many readers did reach for poetry as a salve. “I know that poetry was something that people definitely turned to at the beginning of this,” Karen Brochu, vice president of sales at House of Anansi Press told Quill & Quire in July 2020. “I think people who maybe weren’t poetry purchasers before have become that now.”

But here’s the thing: short fiction has more in common with poetry than with the novel, the genre to which it is most often compared (and frequently found wanting). Pretty much the only thing novels and short stories have in common is they are both works of imaginative literature in prose. (This is an exaggeration, but bear with me.) Stories share with poetry a a rigorous excision of anything extraneous, a recourse to metaphor, and, excluding poetry written in the epic mode, a focus on individual moments and characters.

Short fiction has other commonalities with verse: a preference for allusion, resistance to closure, concreteness of language. This last may seem surprising: many people criticize both genres for appearing too abstract but the best poetry and short fiction is rigorously specific in its language. Flannery O’Connor cites concreteness as the “least common denominator” for stories. She goes on: “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.”

What other qualities does a good short story have? Canadian writer Rebecca Rosenblum suggests that stories “have one or more characters doing things, or having things done to them, or reacting to events, in a particular time and place.” (Julie Roorda’s story “How to Tell If Your Frog Is Dead“ is the exception that proves this particular rule.) Elsewhere, Rosenblum quotes fellow Canadian story writer Andrew Hood as saying, “What the short story can do better than any form is romance the effects of life without having to belabour the causes.”

O’Connor defines a story as “a complete dramatic action” that “always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” A story “deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched,” it “proceeds by the use of detail,” and has “a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order.” The idea of a complete dramatic action is especially germane for those who cavil about open-endedness and lack of resolution, because it underscores the fact that a story must necessarily contain within it everything a reader requires to understand it. Or, as Joyce Carol Oates states, “no matter its mysteries or experimental properties, it achieves closure – meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader understands why.”

Understanding is a key concept, since it is tempting to accuse short story writers of being deliberately obtuse or hiding their meaning in obscure language (very much like poets). But the meaning of any story is inextricable from the language of the story itself; meaning is not something artificially imposed on a story, it resides inside every word, every phrase, every sentence. Every element of a story should work in concert to achieve a desired effect or response; removing a single word from a well-structured story diminishes it.

Because of this, stories tend to make demands on their readers. Stories require attention and concentration and often yield their meanings only over time, or in retrospect. But the best stories reward vigilance and repeated reading.

All of which makes stories sound like hard work, but one of the most appealing aspects of the form is the enjoyment it offers. Short fiction is protean and provides the writer plenty of room to play, to experiment, to test the tensile nature of language and style. Watching a skilled writer do this is fun (NB: not a dirty word). Stories, whether they be light or dark, can be sources of joy for a reader.

Caroline Adderson uses the word “delight” to describe this reaction. In the introduction to Best Canadian Stories 2019, Adderson writes, “I do want to emphasize that delight is not escape. It is not even necessarily pleasurable. … Delight is not a respite from our troubled world but a direct and more mysterious engagement with it.” In a way, it feels like this kind of direct engagement with the world and with others is precisely what many people have been yearning for after living for more than a year with restrictions forced upon us by the ongoing global pandemic.

And fortunately, where the short form is concerned, the types of engagement on offer are varied and multifarious – from the didacticism of the Victorians to the postmodern metafictional games of the 1960s and ’70s; from the pulp SF and hardboiled noir found in mid-20th century American magazines to the Southern Ontario Gothic of Alice Munro and everything in between. The broad spectrum of writing from Canada and elsewhere offers a wealth of inroads into human experience and history through encounters with tightly calibrated, concatenated aesthetic performances.

From the oral traditions of our human ancestors right down to the third decade of the 21st century, our species has distinguished itself as storytellers, and the short fiction genre is a good distillation of the way this inheritance has come to us over the decades. A representative sampling of the form can hope only to pierce the surface of what remains a fascinating and vibrant means of interacting with the world, ourselves, and each other.

31 Days of Stories 2021: Why read short stories?