Short Stories – What are they really?

They sit to the side almost, left out in the sorting of literature, where poetry goes with poetry and novels with novels. The short story, the tale, while highly recognisable and democratic in the spoken form, is treated with uncertainty once it is written down. It is neither this nor that. It’s not verse. It’s prose, but it doesn’t take the reader as far. We don’t learn all there is to know about a character. We don’t watch a world gradually unfold. Not often anyway.

Writer, John Cheever, says it this way:

“A collection of short stories appears like a lemon in the current fiction list, which is indeed a garden of love, erotic horseplay, and lewd and ancient family history; but so long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature…..”

Could we play with this idea? Could we line them up, the novel and the short story and point to the kinds of philosophies best supported by one or the other? It is probably not wise to do so, nor particularly accurate, but lets do it anyway just for kicks.

There is something soothing about the novel. It gives us context. In its heft, we can be assured the answers will be found somewhere. There will be a reckoning over time and there will be solace that life is a sweeping experience, so we need not sweat the small stuff. We will live with the characters. We will gain access to their innermost thoughts and we will walk beside them, within them almost. We will cheer when they get it right and suffer when they don’t. Their victories become ours, their defeats also. It is a grand view of life. Nothing is over until its over. The fat lady takes her time to sing.

The short story requires a different view. It draws the attention to an event or a series of related events and focuses in tightly. It holds us to it. Lives are changed by small, but powerful events. One day, we can be this and the next….. changed. This is a less comforting thought. There is less time to get things right, less of an illusion of control. More randomness, more chaos. It can be a snapshot in time and, for me at least, this might be why I sometimes misremember short stories as places I have been or events I have witnessed myself. The tight focus is the thing.
Cheever gives an example of the kind of effect a short story can achieve in his essay, Why I Write Short Stories:

“I hear them litigating late on Saturday afternoon when I have come home from playing touch football with my sons. This light is going. It is autumn. Charlie’s voice is loud and clear and can be heard by anyone interested. ‘You keep your dog off my lawn, you cook your steaks in the house, you keep the record player down, you keep your swimming pool filter off in the evenings and you keep your window shades drawn. Otherwise I’ll report your drug crop to the police and with my wife’s uncle sitting as a judge this month you’ll get at least six months in the can for criminal possession.’
They part. Night falls. Here and there a housewife apprehending a first frost, takes in her houseplants while from an Elizabethan, a Nantucket, and a Frank Lloyd Wright chimney comes the marvellous fragrance of woodsmoke.”
Of this Cheever says:

You can’t put this scene in a novel.

Perhaps, this is why we have such trouble classifying the short story. The differences are subtle. While it cannot be said in every instance, the brevity of the short story might allow us more distance from the character. We are not with them long enough to become them and so we are still ourselves. In Cheever’s example, we are flies on the wall. We are allowed access to an experience of a suburban street in autumn, a confrontation between neighbours and a sense that we are seeing life in this small moment. Often we are too close, as in the novel, to see life in real life, but from time to time, we do. We stop and we see and we breathe in Cheever’s woodsmoke. We become aware that we are living and we feel it to our core.

Might this not be the short story?  It would take a brave person, a thoroughly courageous reader to read short stories exclusively. Too much of this philosophy can be tough. So be kind. Throw in some grand and sweeping novels. Spend time inside characters and walk and suffer and dance with them, but do come back to the short story to feel its sharp edges, its unwavering focus.