In the 1880s Brander Matthews said that short stories should be spelt with a hyphen to distinguish between two different forms, which reminds me of the picture book vs picturebook debate.
A short story is a story that is short. A short-story proper derives from the Romantic tradition and has its beginnings in myths and legends. The reader is required to put the extensional world out of mind and deal in and with a kind of underworld, a world of inexplicable strange loops, a mystical world of paradox and ambiguity, of shadows and shifting perspectives governed not by rational order but by intuition and dream logic.
— MARY ROHRBERGER, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
Two basic characteristics of the short story
- Its focus on a basic sense of mystery unsupported by a social framework
- Its consequent dependence on formal pattern and structure
Not all short stories are ‘narrative’ in nature. (The same can be said of picture books.) They don’t all follow the basic ‘rules’ of popular storytelling: Weakness/Need, Desire, Opponent, Plan, Battle, Self-revelation and New Equilibrium. Some shorts are simply a sketch or a mood piece. They are pretty much the only form that has garnered an audience who don’t require this. Then again, the best-selling short stories are full, narrative works.
The simple narrative short story is like a novel only much shorter, whereas the short story proper is more like the Romance.
Ways of Categorising Short Stories
In 1952 Ray B. West divided short stories into two types: “realistic” and “symbolic”. The problem with this is that the surface of some highly symbolic short stories is highly realistic.
Other scholars distinguish between “simple narrative”, “mimetic” and “lyric”, “anecdotal”, “epiphanic”, “linear”, “spatial” etc.
Raison d’etre of the Short Story
Short story writers question the world of appearances and in that questioning cast doubt on the immediately apparent and, at the same time, signify the timeless universals beyond the extensional world.
In the short story, questioning is embodied in technique, what is questioned is embodied in structure, and answers to the questions are inherent in total meaning.
The structure of a story creates metaphors that move to symbolic levels and embody meaning by means of analogies.
The very shortness of the short story, as well as the necessary artistic devices demanded by this shortness, force it to focus not on the whole of experience (whatever that is) in all its perceptual and conceptual categorization, but rather on a single experience lifted out of the everyday flow of human actuality and active striving, an experience that is lifted out precisely because it is not a slice of that reality, but rather a moment in which “reality” itself is challenged.
— Charles May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
May explains that novels, in contrast, are expected to resolve their own crises.
The short story can yield us some single bizarre occurrence of epiphany of terror whose impact would merely be blunted by lengthy realist elaboration.
— Terry Eagleton
Short Stories And Detail
In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.
— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.
— Raymond Carver, On Writing
Tips For Writing The Short Story
The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.
American Short Stories
(2015 was my year of The Cheever.)
- Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever – two brothers, one optimist, one pessimist, argue while at the family holiday home in the Massachussetts Islands.
- Reunion by John Cheever – Very sad story about a boy who suddenly understands what an asshole his father is. The classic epiphanic moment.
- The Common Day by John Cheever
- The Enormous Radio by John Cheever – a new radio broadcasts what’s happening inside nearby apartments.
- O, City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever – a country couple relocate to New York with the empty promise of making it big with a partially completed script for a play. They are taken for mugs by a variety of characters.
- The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever – A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church.
- Just One More Time by John Cheever – A story about privilege and how the rich rarely if ever fall to into the depths of poverty that others are born into. This is one of Cheever’s shorter short stories, and has an interesting example of sideshadowing in the final scene.
- The Swimmer by John Cheever – one of Cheever’s surrealist stories
- Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever – An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to.
- Clancy In The Tower Of Babel by John Cheever – An Irish immigrant to New York has an accident at his labouring job and eventually finds a job as an elevator operator at a nearby apartment block which, despite its geographic proximity, is completely foreign to Clancy, and his simple life which is in many ways humble.
- The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever – A good example of a short story in which the protagonist has a small ‘range of change’ (ie. doesn’t really have a true epiphany, though he may seem to.)
- The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx – a parody of the home-away-home story structure, inspired by an Icelandic folk tale.
- The Mud Below by Annie Proulx – a critique of toxic masculinity, with the setting and characters of an American rodeo circuit.
- Job History by Annie Proulx – a portrait of a Trump voter, but written in the late 1990s. I’m sure Proulx saw President Trump coming a mile off.
- The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx – if “Brokeback Mountain” makes you cry, here’s one from the same author that may well make you chuckle.
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx – one of the few short stories to make me cry. Normally, short stories don’t give you time to feel such emotion.
- Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx, set in the American Wild West though without the glamour.
- Fun With a Stranger by Richard Yates – a portrait of a sad, lonely old school teacher who has lost all sense of fun. Her idea of an end of year celebration is to buy the class each an eraser.
- A Glutton For Punishment by Richard Yates – A man is fired from his job and considers keeping this from his wife until he finds another one. But she knows him well, and when he gets home she is able to guess for herself.
- The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar – Who are the new people who have moved into the house across the canyon? Why is our little girl so interested in spending time with these glamorous and mysterious people?
- Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson – a chilling tale about a young woman who just leaves home one day and disappear without a trace.
- I Am Waiting by Christopher Isherwood – set between the world wars, with perhaps some SF elements, or is this a story about mental illness?
- Goodbye and Good Luck by Grace Paley – This short story is interesting partly because it is written as a letter to a recipient who is unseen. In fact, we don’t know the identity of Lillie (mentioned in the first paragraph) until the final paragraph.
- The Great Chain Of Being by Kim Edwards. Well-known for her later novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards has also written numerous short stories, no doubt inspired by time spent living in various Asian countries. This one is a feminist tale about a woman who eventually manages to break free of the gender restrictions placed upon her in her youth.
Canadian Short Stories
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro – Expansive as a novel, with rounded characters.
- Madeline’s Birthday by Mavis Gallant
- Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant
- A Day Like Any Other by Mavis Gallant – This story is interesting to me because of the year it was written. As a modern parent, I hear a lot about how ‘parents these days’ are overprotective of our children, interfering too much in their lives, stunting their emotional development. Yet this is a story of one such mother, and it dates from 1952.
- The Picnic by Mavis Gallant – This story is darkly comic, a ‘comedy of manners’, starring an eccentric old French aristocratic woman. The reader is afforded a close-up view into her life via an American family, the Marshalls, Major Marshall being stationed in France after the war.
- The Cost Of Living by Mavis Gallant – One character confronts another for some wrong-doing, and in one fell swoop the wrongdoer manages to sully the waters with ease, simply because she’s had so much practice.
- The Burgundy Weekend by Mavis Gallant – Lucie and Jerome Girard are due to meet an elderly woman for lunch in Burgundy.
English Short Stories
- The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter – for genuinely feminist revisionings of fairytales, see The Bloody Chamber collection, written in the 1970s. This is from that.
- In The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter – arguably the best feminist revisioning of Little Red Riding Hood
European Short Stories
- Little Red Riding Hood – There are versions that are better than that retold by Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. This was a story told by women, for women, for use when sewing. Girls used to spend a lot of time sewing and spinning.