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How to read a short story

| October 15, 2012

The short story: it's the literary version of the modern pentathlon. An astounding and comprehensive display of imagination, skill, experience and verve -- and nobody cares. Novelists and gymnasts get all the press, while their less popular cousins can't even land a sport drink sponsor.

Even so, it's true the best work of the world's finest writers comes tightly wrapped and economically sized. Margaret Atwood, Eileen Change, Thomas King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor distinguished themselves with short, breathless works of fiction, which continue to delight and engage.

Yet you have to admit short stories have a confidence problem. No one takes them seriously, least of all publishing houses. Novels, even the airport romance kind, have a pedigree that stretches at least back to sixteenth-century France, when it was first determined that if you want to make it as a writer, you'd better write something that doesn't tap out at 100 pages, even if your last name is Munro. The least among novelists can consider themselves successful by mere virtue of publication. To continue the above athletics conceit, finishing a novel, like a marathon, is an end of itself. Not so for the loneliness of the middle-distance author.

The novel's golden age -- the nineteenth century -- produced works which tried to represent the entirety of human society through the interactions of one or many protagonists with the world around them. Think George Eliot's Middlemarch or Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. The twentieth century saw the novel retreat into individualism, hoping to explain the world through an inviolate subjectivity, like Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway or Joyce's Leopold Bloom. Later iterations of the novel fragmented this heritage, but could never quite shake this promise of telling it all. You expect the novel to give you the whole story, even when it doesn't, or won't. The short story, on the other hand, has never given you the whole story, and it never will. It has no interest in so foolhardy a project and wants you to know it. Its only interest is the truth.

Let's start with the obvious. The short story is, well, short. This may sound glib (it is glib), but the short story's shortness is more than simply a don't-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus take on the novel. Its shortness is its blueprint, its architecture. Alice Munro compares the short story to a house: "it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another." Short stories can stir up whirlwinds in a fleeting instant. O'Connor called these moments of divine grace. Joyce called them epiphanies. There's a reason why the terse, declarative sentences and paratactic prose of Ernest Hemingway found their fullest expression in the short story. Small and hard like buckshot, his words and stories burst our small-game hearts.

Its shortness also means that more than any other literary genre, the short story from its outset was designed and produced as a culturally disposable artifact. It was born out of cheap Victorian periodicals sold to a burgeoning consumer class eager to fill its new leisure hours. It matured under the hardboiled prose of crime fiction writers, literary labourers paid pennies per word, who marinated in alcohol and perspiration, endlessly plotting their next kill. Even today, the main platform for the short story is small press zines or monthly highbrow glossies bound for the recycle bin -- and who keeps the short fiction anthology they were compelled to buy in second year?

Yet the genre endures. This could be the most peculiar aspect of the short story altogether. If no one buys them, why are they still around? Do we have only the short attention spans of undergraduates and creative writing workshops to thank?

The fact is, they're around because everyone writes them. New writers, hopeful writers, established writers, fading writers. In many ways short story writing is the seamy underbelly of literature: countless unpaid hours of composition driving the business of major publishing houses and the careers of elite critics while deriving none of the compensation or prestige.

All of these characteristics -- its brevity and concision, its amenability to consumption, its stubborn ability to persist -- make it a distinctly modern genre. In no ther age could something so artful be so disdained, something so disposable so impossible to forsake.

So how do we read a short story? First: slowly. "It's not a race," says Munro. "I don't take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere." Take your time.

Then, read it again. Richard Ford cited Donald Barthelme's ode to the "hard, brown nutlike word" as constitutive of the short story. To crack so condensed and wrought a genre, you need multiple assaults from numerous fronts. Underline sentences. Write in the margins. Dog-ear its pages and stain them with tea and sweat. The short story was meant to be consumed; so: devour it.

Second: attend to the craft. Hemingway, famously, wrote standing up (when he wasn't reading passages of the King James Bible to John Dos Passos over candlelight), paring down his language to its barest bones until the words not there spoke volumes. Note the way Ray Smith moves the reader through time and space so deftly, like in "Serenissima," those middle-school terms like "flashback" and "foreshadowing" seem to crass, too clumsy to handle his art.

Finally, when you're finished, throw it away. Recycle it. Give it to a friend. Leave it on the bus. Sell it back to the bookstore for credit. If it's a good one, it will find ways to stick to you. "Once a story is told," Tom King says, "it cannot be called back." And the next time you see a new novelist speak shyly of her early work, or even better, see a writer who refuses to acquiesce to novelistic hegemony and stubbornly publishes a second, or even a third collection of short stories, spare yourself a quiet smile for this unsung workhorse of literature.

Oh, and buy the damn thing.

 

Join the Babble Book Club's current discussion of the topic of Canadian short story in the babble forum.

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