I wanted stories that took risks – in voice, language, time, character, subject matter, point of view, form and structure, plot of the lack thereof. My own work has been described as “challenging the short story form.” Over the years I have found that the short story is always up to that challenge and can be the perfect vehicle for taking chances. It is malleable, expansive, generous, flexible, and, as I have found, always amenable to innovation, evolution, and revolution. I wanted stories that would wreak havoc with conventions and expectations.
– Diane Schoemperlen, Best Canadian Stories 2021
Schoemperlen’s observation, from the introduction to the 2021 edition of the annual anthology, neatly sums up one of the signal attractions of the form for readers and also, not insignificantly, for writers. Short fiction has been described as a writer’s form, and the reason has much to do with the essential malleability it offers: the room to play, to experiment, to take chances. For all its evident plasticity, the novel is less accommodating in this way; whatever the innovations in style and voice a writer tries to bring to it, the novel remains closely embedded in its Victorian-era formal rules. (Early experiments with the novel form – from Don Quixote to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – were outliers in their day as much as they are now.) Conventions surrounding the so-called well-made novel continue, pace Virginia Woolf, to dominate.
But the short story is a different beast altogether. It is a more unruly beast – a slavering, laughing, misbehaving creature as willing to chomp off your whole hand as to settle for the food in your palm. It is a trickster form, constantly subverting its own natural inclinations. If the novel is a regal lion king, the short story is a cackling hyena.
Perhaps some of the reticence readers experience toward short fiction has to do with a category error. While many people who read stories casually or not at all assume that the form is a kissing cousin to the novel, more experienced practitioners will recognize that short fiction has much more in common with poetry. It’s the concision as much as anything else – the absolute imperative to ruthlessly excise anything extraneous and to communicate in a strenuously pared-down, elliptical, metaphorical style.
Stories, like poems, also focus intensely on moments in time rather than attempting to convey the trajectory of an entire life. If a novel is a panorama, a story thrives in close-up. Its forces language to work overtime and every word must function toward the single effect that Poe described as the form’s underlying imperative. Like poetry, it offers no place for a writer to hide; one wrong word can cause the entire edifice to crumble. Not for nothing have various commentators defined a short story as a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin.
But focusing exclusively on the technical aspects of the short form, while important, belies an aspect of short fiction that often goes unremarked: its pure entertainment value. Short fiction began in the U.S. with writers such as Poe and Hawthorne, both of whom excelled in stories of terror and the uncanny. Henry James added an element of psychological depth, but extended the fascination with ghosts and hauntings in much of his most famous short work. The pulp magazines of the 1890s through the 1950s offered unabashed entertainments in the form of horror, science fiction, mystery, and western stories for a mass audience. And short fiction is a repository for some of the funniest writing around (not surprising when one considers the old saw about brevity and wit).
Given our 21st century attention-deficit culture, it remains a mystery why more readers don’t gravitate to the short form. Stories can be read in a single sitting, though as Mavis Gallant insisted, they should be apportioned carefully, since their density of language and meaning render them less easy to penetrate at a cursory glance. “Read one. Shut the book. Come back later,” Gallant advised. “Stories can wait.”
That, as much as anything, is good news for aficionados of the form. Stories age well. Some of the finest short fiction from the 19th and early 20th centuries is still piercing and relevant in 2022. If one wants to know about the history of Russian totalitarianism, one can turn to Varlam Shalamov; if one wants to better understand the endemic history of American racism, one can turn to “Home” by Langston Hughes or “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin. And the postmodern devotion to collapsing the distance between high and low culture means that genre writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Dorothy B. Hughes are finally getting the kind of legitimate critical attention they have long deserved.
This year’s month-long foray into the short form begins with a 21st century Canadian story, but will extend outward to encompass stories from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Europe, Asia, Central America, and elsewhere, both English-language originals and stories in translation. Some of the stories will be from the near or distant past; others are newly published in book form this year. One story per day for each of the thirty-one days of May, with the goal, as always, to illustrate a cross-section of variety in approach, style, and subject. In aggregate, I hope the selections to come, whether already familiar or not, show the capaciousness and expansive potential of this fluid and provocative literary form.