In this week’s Week In Review, A.O Scott praises the short story, ruminates on its historical significance, hopes for its resurgence, and ponders the necessity of the novel.
I have yet to meet a short story or a collection of short stories I really love. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why I don’t like it as an art form. I cannot blame brevity since I love the essay. And, I do appreciate pith and terseness in writing. Perhaps it has something to with the difference between fiction and non-fiction and I do think there is a difference—however nebulous and muddled it may be. Fiction and non-fiction seem to play out differently in a shorter form, which I believe works to non-fiction’s advantage and to fiction’s disadvantage. Short stories rarely ever feel complete; rather, they seem wanting, needy, deficient. There’s too much crammed into too tight a space—characters, dialogue, plot, history, politics etc. They’re too rarely deftly realized. However, I can think of one exception—The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It is succinct but feels whole. It is chilling as fiction and important in a wider historical context.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to like the short story.
In an American literature class in high school, we read a lot of short stories—by Stephen Crane, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain et al. To my dismay, our cumbersome textbook was chock full of them. Hardly any do I remember fondly except for Twain’s. I remember laughing out loud at The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
Since then, I’ve mostly evaded the short story, which is not that hard to do at college. The novel, the essay, and the poem seemed to dominate while the short story was relegated to some, less-studied place. But, it was the prevailing form in the workshop.
This summer, I made another attempt to reacquaint myself with the short story and essayed to forget any prejudices and preconceived notions I certainly had. I flipped through a collection of short fiction that I found on my grandparents' bookshelf; I read about half of a Raymond Carver story I didn’t like. I picked up collections of short stories—by Sarah Orne Jewett, Italo Calvino, Grace Paley, and Anne Enright.
This is how it went down:
I wanted to like Grace Paley’s stories because she was a professor at Sarah Lawrence (which is an automatic point in her favor) but I did not. I also wanted to like Sarah Orne Jewett because she had a boston marriage and I was into those for awhile. I did not. Then there was Italo Calvino, who is one of my favorite authors. I read a few of his stories in Difficult Loves; they were alright. The most pleased I felt was while reading Anne Enright’s Yesterday’s Weather, which was rather lovely. Her writing is beautiful and eerie and deals quite a bit with human relationships. I do want to read her essays on motherhood and I have a suspicion that I will prefer them.
My feelings about the short story have not left me completely close-minded. Reader, I welcome any suggestion you may have. Maybe I will take A.O Scott’s advice and read some David Barthelme or Flannery O’Connor…