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Short shrift for short stories?

March 25, 2011

Among his other achievements, the Savior was a great short-story writer.

I once had a stupendously frustrating argument with my all-time favorite editor over differences in punctuation for novels and short stories. In defiance of a new edict at the Sun-Sentinel, I insisted on retaining traditional puncuation — italics for long works, quotes around the titles of short ones. That, my editor said, was elitist and discriminatory.

“Are short works — stories, poems — less important than long ones — novels, symphonies?” she asked. “Do they take less creative work, are they less accomplished as art or entertainment? Should not all artistic works be punctuated alike?”

I confess her argument had the effect of instantly drying all the saliva in my mouth, so irked was I. Her position was so blithely logical, on the surface, and yet so clearly wrong, and also because — as I’m sure she knew and secretly savored — it appealed to my inner inclination toward political correctness.

No!” I sputtered. “That’s not it at all. The different styles of punctuation don’t imply value judgments. They’re merely useful indications to the reader what kind of work we’re telling them about, long or short. Italicizing everything takes away a useful and time-honored tool of communication!”

To which she said something like “Pfff!”, and turned back to her computer screen. I stalked away muttering to myself about hell and handbaskets and the hypocrisy of any concept of “reader-friendliness,” which was at the time the slogan if not to say the mantra in the halls of the Sun-Sentinel.

I share this nearly forgotten episode by way of introducing an essay in yesterday’s Guardian, by Chris Power, posing the title question, “Is the short story really the novel’s poor relation?”

Power gives us the delicious quote from the late literary sci-fi author, J.G. Ballard, who called short stories “the loose change in the treasury of fiction.” Short stories, Powers explain, even when a bunch of them are gathered in a collection, are still regarded, as they’ve always been, “the poor relation of the novel.”

He gives us a thumbnail history of the form, which only became viewed as a separate category in the 19th century, when writers such as Poe, Gogol and Turgenev elevated it to a position of artistic prominence — although then, as now, it was an art form that did not pay. Poe, for example, lived in poverty and died in squalor.

Weighing the matter of the short story’s significance, Power sifts many striking quotes from famous authors: “I don’t think one should compare novels and stories. [The story] is a different thing,” says Nadine Gordimer. Adds Nabokov: “In relation to the typical novel the short story represents a small Alpine, or Polar, form. It looks different, but is…linked to it by intermediate clines.”

And the best quote, from novelist and short-story writer Steven Millhauser: “The novel is insatiable – it wants to devour the world. What’s left for the poor short story to do? […] The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence.”

That’s such a vivid image I have to pause a moment in admiration….Ahem. In the end Power concludes, quite reasonably, that “the short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different.”

To which I’d add: Amen. In fact, the short story, with its requirement for narrative compression, almost has more in common with a poem than with a novel. It is an art form all its own, and it contains a world — a universe — of aesthetic and narrative effects and pleasures.

And yet…one of the things I muttered under my breath as I stalked away from the losing argument with my editor was: “Short stories damned well are lesser works than novels!” And they are, I insist today. However much artistry and skill they embody, they simply require less work over a much shorter span of time.

Would anyone suggest that writing a song is an achievement equivalent to writing an opera? Of course not. The difference in scale is not negligible. There’s a reason the novel is the dominant narrative art form of the past 300 years.

Nonetheless, a voice in the back of my mind is protesting, listing all the short stories that I’ve loved that seem, by some magic, to encompass the world. And of course I cannot leave such a topic without a list of my favorite short stories. Here’s a fairly arbitrary list of favorites. I could easily go to 100 instead of just ten….

1. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, by Jesus Christ. When I was a student, I heard an elderly writer (sorry, I can’t remember who), say that this was the perfect short story. At the time I thought she was batty, but I’ve long since come to agree. In fact, brilliant little short stories litter the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, like pearls of great price.

2. Goodbye, My Brother, by John Cheever. One of our greatest short story writers, Cheever compresses an entire family history in 23 ages. It made my breath catch in my throat to read it. And he has dozens that are its equal.

3. A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor. The queen of Southern gothic, O’Connor was another master of the short story, but this one, exposing white hatefulness and hypocrisy in a deliciously lurid tale of violence and criminality, is a masterpiece.

4. A&P, by John Updike. Like Cheever and O’Connor, Updike was a genius with the short story. This comic tale of adolescent male lust is, if not among his best, then at least emblematic of what a versatile instrument the short form was in his supple fingers.

5. The Lady with the Dog, by Anton Chekhov. Of course, Chekhov may be the best ever. This story certainly says almost all that can be said about adultery.

6. My Old Man, by Ernest Hemingway. Trying to read the novels, I never thought much of Hemingway. It was only when I turned to the stories that the dawn lit up. This one, 10 sublime pages set in the European horse racing world between the wars, could be expanded into a two-hour movie with very little additional invention.

7. The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad. I’ve struggled through Conrad’s novels with satisfaction, but his short stories convey most of the same pleasures in a more accessible fashion. This is one of the great stories about the great 20th century theme, identity.

8. Spotted Horses, by William Faulkner. I know I’d get stoned to death in Oxford, Mississippi, for saying this, but I’ve concluded Faulkner’s novels, by and large, are too much work. His short stories, however, are fantastic — and often surprisingly funny, like this one.

9. The Real Thing, by Henry James. Another “Great Writer” who seems to think it should take as much work to read his novels as it did to write them, James is an exemplary short story writer. The Real Thing, first published in 1892, has much to say about the way authenticity would become commodified in the century to come.

10. The Dreamer by Karen Blixen. At this late date I’m making the executive decision to dispense with the pen name, “Izak Dinesen” for the sublime Danish short story writer. This story is from her collection Seven Gothic Tales, which I recommend with the greatest enthusiasm.

I could go on and on and on and on. I’ve included no Poe, no Lovecraft, no Dunsany, no Twain, no Peter Taylor, no Raymond Carver, no Joyce Carol Oates, no…well, you get the idea. Help me out. What are your favorite short stories?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. PJ Parrish permalink
    March 25, 2011 11:54 am

    When I was trying to write my first short story (as an adult; wrote many as a kid), I made the mistake of reading “Goodbye, Mr Brother.” I was paralyzed with despair knowing I would never come within the same UNIVERSE as Cheever. I eventually worked up my courage and wrote the story. And I still go back and re-read Cheever’s story. It is perfect. It gives me hope.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2011 1:29 pm

      It is perfect, isn’t it? Cheever is a very great artist. We ought not compare ourselves to him, unless we wish to despair.

  2. March 25, 2011 12:31 pm

    I always thought they were different. I think on the novel side, it gets a bit tricky. How many pages makes a good novel. 250, 500, 750. It is about the work. What it brings forward. What it does to or for the reader. The short story can do this also. Much quicker. It does not explain maybe the blue sky in 1 page detail, but talks about the blue. sky. Its point is there much sooner. The novel explains the points usually in vivid detail as to enhance the story or message. Poems usually are even shorter to bring the message, thus grammar and punctuation may take a hit. Some times it is done on purpose. Short story also. I will have to think about my favorite. I may still be confusing the novel and the short story. Good thought though.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2011 1:31 pm

      Lester Goran, the fine short story writer and novelist who has been teaching at the University of Miami for 50 years, once explained to me that the short story is a more leisurely art form than the novel. Huh? The short story can take its time getting where it wants to go, but a novel that starts out to poikey will lose the reader, who might think, “It’s going to be 400 pages of this?!?”

  3. March 25, 2011 1:47 pm

    I love Dubliners, which is Joyce at his best and most understandable. Hemingway has his moments too, though all those Nick Adams stories start to run together in my mind.

    • March 25, 2011 3:28 pm

      The Dead is one of my all-time favorite stories, and had I world enough and time I would have included it. I agree about the Nick Adams stories, but any one of them is outstanding, especially Big Two-Hearted River, and The Killers. Without what Hemingway taught Hollywood screenwriters about dialogue in The Killers, there would have been no film noir. I’m not kidding, nor am I the first to say so.

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    March 25, 2011 4:01 pm

    “The Lottery” is probably on a lot of lists, but it is a chiller the first time you read it. I love Fitzgerald’s “Diamond As Big As the Ritz”. Does Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger” manuscripts qualify or is that just another unfinished novel? How about anything by H.P. Lovecraft? O’henry could do it to a short story too. I read a short story by Winston Churchhill once that freaked me out, shark tales usually do. Stephen King’s “The Mangler” anyone? I’m a sucker for machines gone wild. What about “Lord of the Flies”? novel or novella? “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card – same question.
    Question: when does a short story become a novella? A novella a novel? I do not care for the random numbers game. There I said it, thanks again, Chauncey for forcing me to think.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2011 4:27 pm

      Ah, it’s a tough job, Karwacki, but somebody’s got to do it. The distinction between a short story and a novella and between a novella and a novel is pretty damned fluid. Poe said a short story is any piece of fiction that can be read in a single sitting — which he identified as three hours. I think that’s probably shrunk in the 21st century to about 30 minutes. I’d say, rule of thumb, anything under 40 pages is a short story (though most modern short stories do well to come in at much less than that), while anything between 40 and 110 pages is a novella. But I’ve read 80-page novels that seemed to justify the title, and I’ve read 60-page short stories that do the same. So after expert consideration: Your guess is as good as mine. And I know it when I see it. So there.

  5. March 27, 2011 8:36 pm

    What a very fine list, Chauncey. Only one I’d nudge aside is the Henry James and slip in Raymond Carver’s totally brilliant “Cathedral.” He had a gift.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 28, 2011 10:57 am

      Carver’s a bit of a genius, no doubt about it, Duff. Cathedral’s a great story, but many of his other ones are just as good, I think.

  6. March 28, 2011 12:59 pm

    In the Land of the Blind, the One-eyed Man is King–HG Wells

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 30, 2011 2:30 pm

      Oh, yeah: How could I have forgotten that one? One of the best ever. Better even than Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.

  7. Clare MacQueen permalink
    April 10, 2011 3:14 pm

    Chauncey, wonderful list! “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is indeed chilling, and brings to mind “The Lottery” as well. And one of my all-time favorites is James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

    By the way, I agree re punctuation. It’s less a matter of judging which genre is a higher art form, so to speak, than it is an issue of consideration for the reader’s expectations. Let’s not overturn how-many-years of practical editorial convention here to be PC, as you said, or simply for the sake of change.

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