Reflections on the Challenge and Charm of the Short Story
There was a time when I was not very keen on the short story. As a reader, even the most well-crafted, engaging stories often left me feeling ambivalent, especially those by writers I admired in other genres – Joyce, say, Chekov, or Doris Lessing. True, short stories could offer a ‘taster’, a way in to a writer’s longer, perhaps more demanding, work. But in those days, paradoxically, the more I enjoyed a particular story, the less it satisfied me, my appreciation marred by frustration that it was so – well – short. The experience invariably left me yearning for more, many more, thousands of words that I could sink my teeth into – not this tasty amuse bouche that was just enough to whet the appetite, but not enough to satisfy it.
It was only when I started to write my own stories that I came to discover the challenges and charm of the genre. Perhaps I was also influenced by the persistence of certain images, themes, even fragments of text from stories I had almost forgotten I had read, slivers that lingered in my memory and from time to time flared in my mind’s eye: the young man in a rowing boat on a Cavan lake coming to a tragic understanding of his place in the family dynamic (Korea, John McGahern); a woman contemplating her life, her mind unravelling in shadows and light playing across her bedroom wall (The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Having recently gathered together sixteen of my own stories, collected under the title What to Put in a Suitcase, I now feel drawn to reflect on the qualities which I think can imbue a short story with such vitality.
For me, this involves clarifying what the short story is not. My mistake as an early reader was, I think, to regard the story as a mini-novel. Not surprising, perhaps, given that both genres are (usually) written in continuous prose, a surface similarity which may suggest that the former is a truncated, and therefore, inferior, version of the latter. Yet Borges never wrote a novel, and there is nothing truncated or small about his work. Just the opposite. If anything, his dazzling, multi-faceted and often fantastical work shows that the short story is not a mini anything, but sui generis, not really comparable to any other genre, in spite of superficial likenesses.
The most obvious defining characteristic of the short story is brevity. But how short is ‘short’? Here, at the minimalist end of the continuum is “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn,” attributed to Hemingway; also, Augusto Monterrosso’s The Dinosaur: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there,” both gems proving that a glimpse can convince us of an entire world that exists far beyond the boundaries of six or nine words, as a corner torn from a photograph suggests the greater scenario of the whole.
And what of the other boundaries, where micro-fiction shades into flash, novella, story, novel? Well, depending on who you ask, and who you read, the ‘typical’ length of a short story has been declared to be somewhere around five thousand words. Or six. Or seven-and-a-half, or ten, or seventeen thousand words. Somewhere along the line, in the low twenties, perhaps, we slip into the novella, and then march on to the mighty novel. If we throw market requirements into this arbitrary mix, the word limit for short stories in competitions, print publications and radio broadcasts – often around two or three thousand words – must have some influence on the scale and scope of the work we produce. But having an eye to publication or broadcast opportunities is no bad thing. Sometimes, less is more and I think wistfully of the days when writers such as Chekov could support an entire family on the income from short stories in newspapers and magazines.
But perhaps the number of words is of less significance than the dynamic the short story can evoke. I have noticed that those I love best, whether narrated events, anecdotes, stream of consciousness, historical tales, almost always call forth some significant change, either in a character, in the social setting, in the reader or all of these. This may be as dramatic as an irrevocable action, or as subtle as a dawning epiphany, allowing the brevity of the form to confound readers’ expectations by pivoting from one physical or emotional or social landscape to another, the effect intensified by the relatively short time span within which the transformation occurs.
This can be provocative, even shocking. I am thinking here of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which creates a jolly picture of simple villagers gathering to celebrate some unspecified, no doubt quaint and rather dull, tradition that reaches back into the mists of time. And out of nowhere – though not really, for the signs are there for the sharp-eyed reader who is not so easily lulled into a false sense of security – the scenario turns into something – well, let’s just say, something else. When it was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, the magazine received hundreds of phone calls and letters of complaint. Shirley Jackson herself got hate mail. In a few thousand words, not a single one of them an accusation or a judgement, the world of The Lottery creates a chilling indictment of social conformity and blind adherence to ideology and authority. This must have resonated deeply in post-World War II America, barely three years after the US Army had liberated Dachau. Despite, or perhaps because of the brevity, the eerily jaunty tone, it’s still one of the most shocking stories I have read.
This reminds me of another feature that lends intensity to the short story: the power of what isn’t said, of what is left out, the literary equivalent of the white space in a painting. The story, or parts of the story that the reader infers, rather than consumes, have the greatest power of all. And sometimes, as readers, we are haunted by the story that is not told: the phantom tale that hovers over, or alongside or beneath the one that is revealed, nagging us that there is something more, the whole story, or another story entirely, hinted at in fragments that leave the reader wondering, trying to see beneath the surface.
And surely this is a valuable function for art to accomplish? Does this not approximate to our lived experience – the impossibility of ever knowing the full story of anything, be that an event, a person, a life, the reality of forever being limited by our own perspective? All we can ever see is fragments; and all we can ever have, is the sense that we choose to make of them. The short story not only reminds us of this: it makes us live it, by insisting on inference, on interpretation, on the co-creation of meaning by the reader and writer alike.
These reflections on the short story have not delved into the technicalities of structure and writing techniques; though I will admit that I am especially interested in how use of point of view, manipulation of tone and tenses can create some of the effects I have mentioned. There are many excellent books that explore writing technique for the short story, the most recent one I have read myself, and by far the most charming, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2021). It’s an absolute delight – amusing, humble, very practical and useful. I read it for fun when it first came out and now plan to return to it as a workbook, in preparation for writing my new stories. I hope, with the help of George Saunders and others, they may some day produce the same, long-lasting echoes in other readers as my favourite stories have in me.
That’s another thing about the short story – it may be short, but it’s never really over.
(c) Liz McSkeane
About What to Put in a Suitcase:
These sixteen stories from an award-winning fiction writer and poet follow a cast of characters destined to navigate a world that is by turns perplexing, intriguing, threatening. What to Put in a Suitcase evokes a rich variety of people and situations: a suburban dinner party whose hosts harbour a troubling secret; a childhood prank in 1940s Dublin with tragic consequences that reverberate through the decades; the sinister challenge of walking along a deserted corridor; a family fleeing environmental disaster in Dublin of the near future; a passionate defence of personal space, even if only in the local café.
“The world of What to Put in a Suitcase is a very uncertain place, full of uncomfortable questions. We are frequently unsure where we are, the terrain shifts, the ground beneath our feet feels increasingly unstable. These are stories written in spare, pared-back language, with images that startle, packed with interior monologues that are rich with insight and observation and reflect the challenges of modern life: immigration, the pandemic, violence against women, society’s many inequalities.”