Short stories have somehow moved to the outer reaches of what people think of as story-telling, but I think it’s time they were brought back in from the cold. The very idea of the novel is a relatively modern creation — basically a product of mass printing and the increased leisure time and literacy of the middle classes. Even then, novels by the likes of Dickens and Hardy first came out through magazines in short-story sized bites. Before that, there were songs, and there were poems, which were pretty much like songs anyway, and there was drama, and there was religion, which is full of short stories, even if they’re combined into chapters and books. Which leaves the simple idea of the tale, the story. Imagine if someone were to sit before with an interesting gleam in their eye, and say, “I want to tell you a story” What you’d expect isn’t a novel, but something which closely matches what we all think of as a short story, hard though that may be to define.
This absence of an easy definition for a short story other than perhaps it’s short enough to be absorbed in one sitting, and probably isn’t true, is a great strength rather than a weakness. The novel, with its stronger need for theme and structure and narrative, is a far weightier beast, and thus easier to wrestle with and pin down. But it’s the seemingly slight nature of the short story which has, I think, been part of the reason for its decline. For one thing, if the answer to the question “what are you reading?” is “oh, a short story” rather than “it’s this novel” you’re going to leave the questioner, in this literal age of categories and definitions, less satisfied. This will-of-a-wisp aspect of shorter fiction, with its greater freedom for experiment and surprise, has made it a happy hunting ground for critics and academics, who, in their talk of unity of place and theme and varieties of structure, give the impression that the reading of a short story requires the same severity of approach as your might find in the study of cornice shapes in classical architecture. Then, there’s “the market”, which much prefers to sell a hefty stand-alone package with one stand-alone story, and the fatter the better (so much more perceived value), thank you very much.
There are, of course, many exceptions, although less than there were. Magazines filled with short stories — from People’s Friend to Asimov’s Science Fiction to Granta — do still survive. Sometimes, they even thrive. But they’re perceived as fringe concerns for specialists by most readers. Even short story collections by popular writers are generally dressed up to look as close to their novels as can be got away with. But, back from the time when people first gathered around a fire to shelter from the darkness, the short story lies at the heart of what we humans are. We like wonder. We like surprise. We like fresh experience. We want to be reminded how it feels to be young, or scared, or deeply in love. And then, after an hour or so (and much as with going to the movies), we’ll stretch and smile and shiver, and head off to bed. The exchange is so natural that the wonder isn’t that short stories have dwindled in popularity, but that any other kind of fiction has ever managed to succeed.
From my personal point of view as a writer of what you might term fantastic fiction, as well as an avid reader, I hold the short story in extremely high regard. Not that I don’t like to read and write novels. But there’s something about the shorter stuff which is more essential, more pure. You can take an idea, a place, a person, a feeling, and dance with it for a while, then let it spin off back into the dark. The fact that the music’s left hanging, and you might think you want more, is part of the trick, the magic. To take the types of genre I most often use when I write, there are many examples in science fiction of brilliant short stories which have been turned into far less brilliant and much more bloated novels. I can remember the time when ghost, scary or horror fiction was, almost by definition, short. Steven King is a great writer, not least of short fiction, but, with his easy style, so credible and involving, he’s created a monster in the “fat horror novel” which is unlikely to survive his demise, long off though I hope that will be. As for fantasy, which is many ways does seem to have more of a genuine right to be long, I am, again, sufficiently old to remember when the genre existed as little more than a misplaced scatter of largely ignored works. If this type of writing had been explained to someone, they’d have thought you meant fairy stories, or perhaps the tales of the Arabian Nights. Which are all short. I do accept that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which clearly changed everything as far as “heroic fantasy” is concerned, is a great work. Many other good books have also been written on the back of its success — maps at front, glossary at the back, and so forth — but the vein these books are mining, broad though it often is in execution, is essentially narrow in theme, and I seriously doubt if most will last. The very term “fantasy” implies a sense of surprise and wonder that you’re hardly likely to get at page 524 in volume 3 of some blockbuster epic. For both reader and writer, it’s hard to think of anything more grounded in comfortable research, easy repetition and unchallenging slog. Fantasy of the kind which is actually thought-provoking, just as with fictions of unease, and works of speculation, wonder and science, all thrive most fruitfully with the short story’s lightness of touch.
Now I have a confession to make. A fair few of the stories in my latest e-book collection Snodgrass and Other Illusions, are actually quite long. Some, in a small way, even mimic a short novel’s broader arc. But none of them will detain you for much more than a hour, and I’d like to think that — doubtless allowing for the regular surfacing of my usual bugbears and obsessions — they are all different. Some are set in the recognisable past, others in sidewise expressions of the here and now, and others in the unknowable future. I like to play with things, new ideas, different times, people and places, be it a John Lennon who quit the Beatles before they became famous, a future Paris swamped by virtual art, Jerusalem at the time of a risen Christ, or the windy airfield from which the bombers flew off toward Dresden during World War Two.
Short fiction isn’t a lesser form to the novel. It’s simpler different, and lighter on its toes. After all, there’s a lot to be said for brevity. No one would complain that the early Beatles singles, or the paintings of Vermeer, or Debussy’s Claire De Lune, or a Tom and Jerry cartoon, was too brief, or too small, or too short. It’s a fact of our existance that the very best, most memorable and exciting things we experience in life come and go astonishingly quickly. Short fiction celebrates this. We all should.
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