Whither the Short Story or Wither the Short Story
/by David Appleby/
Whither the short story?
The Irish Times recently asked if 2012 was the year of the short story, announcing that short story collections are ‘blossoming all over the place.’ The British publishing house, Bloomsbury, is offering a short story collection each month for the first five months of the year. They cite a ‘perceptible growth in enthusiasm for short stories’ and explain that attention spans have been compromised by the internet and ‘the appeal of a story is perfectly crafted to the length of a commute, a lunch break, the last minutes of the day before switching off the light.’ As a writer of short stories this last strikes me as more fitting to the reading of a magazine article, or a Sunday supplement feature than a short story: in fact it’s insulting to any short story that breathes.
But with all the fanfare in Ireland, Great Britain, and the USA – which issues several ‘best of’ collections on a yearly basis, thus locking in our celebration – a whiff of disquiet hangs in the air over the short story form. There is an ongoing conversation that the short story form is undergoing something of a sea change: the form itself is taking on strange cargo, and the short story is not what it used to be.
What of that? What then did the short story form ‘used to be’?
Sean O’Faolain, in distinguishing the short story from the tale, reminded us that we know it’s a short story because it’s, ahem…short. And Frank O’Connor in his classic study of the short story – still something of the last word on the subject here in the USA – concluded that the short story has as its core value a specific and recurring central theme: that of human loneliness. That matters here in the US, this homage paid to loneliness, for it sets loose those small ripples of behavior which often go unexplained in the short story. In the existential eyes of Andre Malraux, the American short story places a fundamental emphasis on the act, not on analysis or explanation. It came as no surprise to me that among his several chosen examples of this central theme, Frank O’Connor used, as a prime example of that depiction of human loneliness, a short story by the American writer, J.D. Salinger to underscore his point. He of course went on to also include the Irish and British masters of the form to buttress his claim.
As to characters? Well, a short story should not have more than four, we had been told, but preferably two or three, though two works best. So Mr. O’Connor stated. (Or was that Mr. O’Faolain speaking?)
Those of us on intimate terms with the short story form know that unlike the novel, which John Fowles called ‘a hypothesis and first cousin to the lie’, we feel the short story, so centered on the act and on the behavior of the two or three characters, carries a ring of truth and that it is these acts which are, in Sartre’s words, ‘complete in themselves, acts which it is necessary to grasp completely with all the obscure powers of our soul’. What elevates the short story then is not characterization – leave that to the novel where characterization really matters – in the short story, like jazz, it is often what’s suggested by the characters’ behaviour that counts. The short story form has sought to discourage iron-clad answers or irrefutable explanations. It has always left much to the reader’s imagination. It has asked the reader to round his or her mouth around the essential ‘why’?
By and large, this is the capsule version of what the short story ‘used to be’.
Wither the short story?
A month ago a panel gathered in Dublin to debate Frank O’ Connor’s classic study. Some found objections to his study: ‘too prescriptive’, ‘too limiting’. Some of the assembled writers at the Irish Writer’s Center felt that O’Connor’s study had little relevance to their writing. Perhaps there is a feeling that ‘The Lonely Voice’ is out of date? If so, perhaps the reason for that is the current rage for brevity.
A perception exists that what ‘used to be’ the short story form is being cannibalized by the increasingly popular short-short story of 1200 to 2500 words. And add to that the near frenzied growth of those shorter forms of ‘Flash Fiction.’ Though neither are new – Borges and Kafka were writing in these forms long ago – the brevity of each form can be frightening to the resistant reader, the literary critic, and even the short story writer who is accustomed to the easily identifiable beginning, middle, and end in the more traditional short story form – the perceived, ‘used to be’ short story of 3500 words or more. (Think here, Alice Munro or William Trevor, among many others.) Imagine the howl of these ‘purists’ of the form as they encounter the ‘six word story’ gaining strength as it vies for its place in the ‘withering’ short story form. (An unverifiable, unsubstantiated origin of the six word short story relates the ‘urban legend’ that tells how Ernest Hemingway challenged a group of fellow writers that he could write a story using only six words. They accepted his bet and he allegedly picked up a napkin and wrote: ‘For Sale: Baby’s shoes. Never worn.’ Papa, the legend concludes, gathered up his winnings and left the table.)
An additional concern over a ‘new form’ can be found in the increasing number of short stories that are ‘connected’ to form a novel, yet at the same time are short stories that may be read as individual stories in a collection, hop-scotching across the table of contents and reading in any order of choice. Hardly new, and purists may take heart here: Dublin City Libraries has chosen a book of connected stories for their ‘One Book: One City program’. The book? James Joyce’s Dubliners.
The short story – whither or wither – always has been and continues to be a viable and essential art form. And in the English speaking world it is safe to say that every year is the ‘year of the short story.’ Additional proof required? Just trawl through Shortbread’s many hundreds of short stories from writers throughout the English speaking world who utilize every short story form extant, and you will be amazed and uplifted as I am by the variety and vitality of the short stories found on these pages.