In Praise of Short Stories

There was a time when the world abounded with short stories. Great authors wrote brief masterpieces, securing their places in literary history and in English courses throughout North America; great books were introduced to the world as serialized novels. The mediocre and the obscure – overlapping but not homogeneous groups – found their footing in pulp magazines, making their appeal to niche markets.

But the short story faded. The magazines were mostly shut down, the new great authors wrote long masterpieces, and novels were published all at once. Established authors might get their short stories published in anthologies or – especially if the story was about Christmas – in little hardbacks with trite Hallmark illustrations meant to justify charging readers fifteen bucks for a crummy twenty thousand words. (They didn’t.) But the days when writers could make their fame or living by short stories were over.

Now novels are, more and more frequently, simply one part of a book series, as movies are one part of a franchise. So while stories grow longer and longer, I want to speak a word in praise of short stories. For years I’ve been making my way through the sci-fi short story collections on Librivox. I didn’t begin with any real appreciation of short stories, but I learned it. I learned to see what advantages short stories uniquely possess.

Ideas and styles that aren’t suited to long works find expression in short stories. Such ideas and styles aren’t inherently worse, but they are different. “Ask a Foolish Question” tells a sci-fi story in a fairy-tale form and it is entrancing, but it would grow awfully thin stretched out to three hundred pages. This story is devoted to a single thought, profound though melancholy, that our trouble isn’t that we don’t know the answer; it’s that we don’t know the question. No novel can be built on a single thought, because one thought just doesn’t go far enough. But short stories can be, and that is one of their noblest functions: to catch those stray ideas or images that would otherwise just drift away.

Short stories are also the playground of an old game in science fiction: trick the readers with their own assumptions. Here is how it is played: First, center the story around a classic conflict but hide one basic, vital fact; trust that the audience will automatically complete the picture with some natural assumption, and it will be wrong; write the story in a way that supports the readers’ misperception without truly affirming it; at the end, reveal the truth. This game, difficult to sustain for very long, is really only suited to the format of short stories, and even there writers commonly lose. Readers learn to play, too. “Rough Beast” and “Runaway” attempt the game, if you want to see it done. (“Runaway” sort of devastated me; I mean this as a warning, but I know it just makes you want to read it more.)

Finally, short stories require only a minor investment of time. They don’t take the commitment that novels do, or incur an equal cost when they’re not worth it. That frees you to be less selective and more adventurous in your reading. You may even discover stories of poor quality that have, among all the chaff, a valuable kernel of wheat. I have read short stories that, for all their deficiencies, had an image or an idea that stayed with me.

Short stories have to know their end and pursue it with devotion; where they don’t have time for depth they must compensate with color. The difference between short stories and novels is not only length; short stories are not simply less. They are their own art form, and I say – bring them back.