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.

A Literary Theory (By Accident)

Recently I developed a literary theory on short fiction. This wasn’t intentional. It was a result, rather, of my attempts to escape boredom without having to pay any money.

I do aerobics. Aerobics have been described, not entirely unjustly, as “the ability to withstand enormous amounts of boredom”. I have tried to alleviate the boredom with music, podcasts, interviews, and – what proved best of all – audiobooks. Because I don’t enjoy audiobooks enough to actually pay for them, I use LibriVox, a resource of free audiobooks.

Free, because all the books are out of copyright.

Out of copyright, thus old.

Old, and so often short.

Short fiction was more popular in the old days, before the Age of the Trilogy. It’s an odd paradox that the literary fashion of our time, which demands Instant Hook (“You Had Me At Hello”), can hardly ever let a story end without first prolonging it through several books. On the one hand, the Hook Establishment, ever telling aspiring authors their first paragraph isn’t exciting enough. On the other hand, the ubiquitous series.

Literature of the old school wasn’t like this. It used to be that nobody expected anything truly exciting to happen on the first page, or even in the first chapter. If an author took a hundred pages to set up a story, readers would understand. And yet the days of the long, slow openings were also the time of the short story. A wealth of short stories surround literary monoliths like Moby Dick and War and Peace.

On LibriVox, I’ve found short fiction published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: novellas by George MacDonald, a couple short story collections by E. Nesbit, a handful of sci-fi novellas and anthologies. The sci-fi anthologies especially helped me to see that the heart of a short story is not the characters, or the plot, but a single, pulsing idea.

As I listened to these brief sci-fi stories, I came to see them as expressions of ideas, answers to questions that, never spoken, could eventually be seen: What if Martians invaded Earth disguised as performers in a parade? What if aliens intervened to stop nuclear testing? What if it really were possible to bring bad luck? Could orbiting Earth change a man’s perspective in more ways than one?

Novels are also about ideas, small and large. But the virtue of short stories is that they permit the expression of ideas without the lengthy, elaborate weaving of novels – a sketch to a tapestry. Some ideas would not be given literary life otherwise – because the author lacks the time or interest, or simply because the idea itself cannot carry a long story.

Let me give you an example. Suppose I wanted to write about the Guild of Avenging English Students, a secret organization whose mission is to capture the Hook Establishment and send it through time portals in order to suppress various interminable classics. The ultimate goal would be that no one ever again had to write a paper on Moby Dick, and of course there would be all sorts of dangers, such as the Hook Establishment getting schooled by Tolstoy.

Is this idea worthy of a novel? No. Could it be woven with other ideas to make a novel? Probably not.

But it would be a lark, and in a short story the idea could reach, without exhausting, its potential. That is the beauty of the short story.