It should be more than clear with Not about Lumberjacks that I’m a big fan of short stories. I started the show almost a year ago to force me to return to writing short stories. What you may not know is that short stories were my way into more serious fiction.
As a kid, I read Ray Bradbury’s collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun and devoured Stephen King’s short stories. But it was The Stories of John Cheever that was my first exposure to literary fiction. So I enjoyed reading Junot Diaz’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2016.
Some gems from the piece, but really…read it yourself:
I love the form’s spooky effects, how in contradistinction to the novel, which gains its majesty from its expansiveness, from its size, the short story’s colossal power extends from its brevity and restraint.
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This is a form that is unforgiving as fuck, and demands from its acolytes unnerving levels of exactitude. A novel, after all, can absorb a whole lot of slackness and slapdash and still kick massive ass, but a short story can unravel over a pair of injudicious sentences. And while novels can dawdle for chapters before sparking into brilliance, the short story needs to be about its business from its opening line.
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To me this form captures better than any other what it is to be human—the brevity of our moments, the cruel irrevocability when those times places and people we hold the most dear slip through our fingers.
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It dawned on me finally that this was no intermediate form, a step en route to the novel, but an extraordinary tradition in its own right, not easily mastered but rich in rewards.
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Those rewards are wonderful. I have experienced more pride and received more praise from stories sometimes written in a matter of days than I have from novels that took me years to write. You might be quick to think that exuberance comes from being able to read (or listen to) a story in a sitting; whereas a novel requires more time and attention. But I don’t think it’s necessarily that…although time is a factor. Short stories hit on something visceral in an instant, while novels require time. Obviously, one is not better than the other, and the rules that bind them become a bit flexible once mastered. Still, you can get away with certain things in short fiction that you often cannot in novels.
One person who loved “Horus” said, were it a novel, that they would have wanted a detailed explanation of how a parrot can talk like a human and live for centuries. There is a built-in willing suspension of disbelief in the short story, though, and “Horus” is a story that made more than a few hardened individuals cry because they quickly accepted the premise. Perhaps at novel length it would have the same effect, but we are a society that looks for cracks. Novels are more of an investment, and if a person invests days with a story (rather than minutes or hours), they often want a bit more explanation than they are willing to accept as part of the form in a short story.
None of this is to say that writing short stories is easier than writing novels. Many writers fear short stories because, while they allow for a certain bit of misdirection, they are everything laid open for all to see. There’s no room for pages of beautiful prose just for the sake of beautiful prose. Not that brevity is the main strength of a short story, but one must get to the point a bit quicker when writing short fiction. And because of that, it’s like performing a difficult, exposed routine on a high wire.
Novels cover the ground, with roots running deep into everything — a solid mass of a thing that seems immovable when done well. But a short story is not anchored in the same manner, even though — when done well — they can carry just as much weight.
It’s not easy to do, but it’s definitely worth the pursuit!