The Long and Short of It: In Praise of Little Stories

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

Since Alice Munro was announced as the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, I’ve seen such a tremendous, albeit much deserved outpouring of love for the “master of the contemporary short story.” Following the news came a lot of interesting discussions. How rewarding it was for fans, especially since she’s been overlooked many times before. How she is only the 13th woman ever to win the award and the first Canadian woman. Then there was, of course, the focus and attention to her particular kind of work. The short story. No, in her entire career, Munro has never written a single full-length novel. Not a decision, she claims, as much as something that simply did not happen when she sat down to work.

I started thinking, then, about how I personally regard the art of the short story, or what I like to call “little stories.” Where do I place them alongside novels and poetry? Looking at my bookshelf, I read mostly novels. Why is that? Turning away from myself, I considered everyone else. Was the literary world surprised Munro won (and not say, the favorite, Murakami?) because she is focused on one kind of writing, versus being a master of all? And if that is the case, are short stories then not respected?

Now I don’t think I have any real or right answers, but the one feeling I can’t seem to let go of is that short stories seem to be somewhat misunderstood and certainly not as popular as bestselling novels. Why then is that, I wonder?

A Building of Tales

When I first attended university, I enrolled in a short story class, in which we studied many individual pieces, plucked from larger collections, and examined each one. It was, embarrassingly enough, my first experience with short literature. That semester I read a great variety of authors, now some of my all-time favorites. There was Landscape with Flatiron by Murakami, Walker Brothers Cowboy by Munro (of course!), The Dead by Joyce, Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway.

As we went about our readings, I imagined each different collection as a row of apartment complexes situated on a crowded street. As a class, we only had enough time during the semester to peek through one window in each of the buildings.

Later, if we wanted, we could go back on our own time and look into the other, neighboring windows, see what was happening inside, learn about the others, those different tenants trapped between the pages. And see for ourselves just how the collections were connected, through what major theme or similarity. A place or country, a cast of interrelated and repeating characters, love or friendship?

One thing about short stories, though, is that you will never be fully invited inside. So much is not said, so much of the past or back story, is unknown. Everything is a single moment.

The reader does not get the privilege of living inside another world or narrator’s consciousness for a course of days or weeks or months, however long it takes to complete the novel. There is this comfort, I’ve found, in starting a particularly lengthy book and flipping through the pages, gauging how long you have until the end. You can ease into it. It is reassuring that the end is somewhere far off. You don’t find that sort of security when it comes to short stories.

In fact, my first encounters actually left me slightly discontented and confused. Not in an unfilled sense, but in a more basic and incredibly selfish one. I wanted more time, just a few more words, a few more sentences, to know more. It took me years to work past this and to learn how to approach a short story properly.

As enthusiastic a reader as I am, I forget sometimes how to pace myself. I can fly through a novel in a matter of hours if I am given the freedom to do so. What I needed to teach myself, and what came with age, was a certain amount of patience, restraint, and appreciation for the craft of storytelling. I had to slow down. Collections of short stories are not meant to be devoured, I learned, but savored slowly.

Writer of Stories

The ironic thing about all of this is that as a writer, myself, the first pieces I ever worked on happened to be short stories. Even before I even knew what a short story was, as a child, I was writing and illustrating little scenarios in my composition notebooks. It was drawn to what I knew – reminiscent of children’s books, the ones my parents read to me before bedtime. The concept of a beginning, middle, and end was engrained in my mind, something I did not need to be taught.

That carried over into adulthood. I never had the desire to work on a novel. Now, the majority of pieces I send out for publication are usually under 1,000 words – even shorter than some short stories. Internet literature magazines, especially, request a degree of brevity, as well as the talent and ability to be able to say something in a very limited space. They recognize that sitting down and trying to cram characters, plot, and setting into a small space is a difficult task, but necessary for the medium where attention spans are fleeting.

And this is the one thing I cannot understand about why short stories aren’t more popular – short stories are an incredible challenge. With a novel, you can have a few bad sentences, but in a five-page story, you aren’t allowed a single mistake. It is craft, elevated and perfected. This is why undergraduate and graduate students study short stories in order to learn how to write.

Future

When I look forward, I often like to look back. Novels, once not very long ago, were relatively new to literature. Poetry dominated – think of most of our great medieval texts, our great epics like Beowulf or The Odyssey and even the great Arthurian Romances – and when the early novels first came along, they were belittled, looked down upon, insulted and coined as “feminine.” It is almost hard to believe sometimes, isn’t it?

As for what I know, the future for literature on the Internet seems to mirror its fast-paced medium – seeming to suggest that you absolutely must make your stories short or no one will read them. Hence, the birth of flash fiction, pieces fewer than 500 words. Now, whether this will catch on or translate to print is up for debate. As I stated before, short stories still aren’t as popular as novels, I don’t think. I can’t see a collection of flash fiction resonating, then, outside of its own community.

However, I know that literature progresses at a slow crawl at times, but it does move forward. My real hope is that the outcome of Munro’s recognition for her lifetime of short story writing will introduce people to the importance of her writing and also other short story writers, past and present. Maybe that little gold stamp will be a key to discovery and to appreciation.

Some Recommendations

I could not end this without listing a sort of primer for other authors I admire. I’ve tried to keep it as diverse as possible:

1. The Elephant Vanishes: Haruki Murakami

2. The Tent: Margaret Atwood

3. The Secret Lives of People in Love: Simon Van Booy

4. I Am No One You Know: Joyce Carol Oates

5. No One Belongs Here More Than You: Miranda July

6. Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: Alice Munro

7. Cosmicomics: Italo Calvino

8. Ten Little Indians: Sherman Alexie

9. The Complete Short Stories: Ernest Hemingway

10. Collected Fictions: Jorge Luis Borges

Do you have a favorite short story or maybe short story collection? Do you write short fiction? If so, where? Feel free to share.

Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature and recently finished her novella. She plans of making an origami swan out of her diploma. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. Find more information at amariefoxart.wordpress.com and amariefox.tumblr.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by julio.garciah.

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