Andromeda/Your Turn: What Makes a Short Story a Short Story?

So I get home last night after guest-teaching in a friend’s fiction workshop (warm room, sleepy-eyed undergraduate students — but I come home riled up, because evening classes always do that to me, all the more when the students are quiet). I log onto an online discussion from my own MFA program about Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, who I mentioned last week. The discussion hasn’t really heated up yet — more to come, no doubt — and we’ve only scratched the surface. Sure, we like this story or we don’t like that one: but what is a short story, anyway?

I’ve noticed among the workshops stories I’ve read lately that most of them don’t seem like short stories — they seem like the unfocused beginnings of novels. Short stories can cover a few minutes (Wolff’s Bullet in the Brain) or they can cover a lifetime, or close to it (Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich); they can be restricted to one setting or not; they can have few characters — but not necessarily; they may seem to express a greater unity than the baggy and digressive novel. In all cases, compression is at work, and the skilled writer is the one who knows precisely what to leave out. (And isn’t this what makes the modern short story ‘modern’ — and haven’t modern readers become increasingly comfortable with a writer leaving the story apparently unfinished or leaving more unsaid?)

But is that all there is to be said on the subject?

My family goes to sleep but I’m still awake, thinking about that question. I read some online interviews with Tobias Wolff — including one where he asserts that “perfection is attainable” in the short story and another where he asserts that the short story, despite its brevity, actually requires more from the reader’s attention. (Interesting thoughts, both.) I pull out a long-ignored anthology next to my bed with an essay on the subject, written in 1958 (a classic and oft-cited essay, the editor tells me), in which Norman Friedman argues that the short story and the novel “differ in degree but not in kind.” Then he goes on to explore large actions and small actions, as well as how POV affects length.

All interesting, but I’m not satisfied. I’m thinking: If I don’t get to bed soon, I’ll never find time in the morning for everything that needs to be done, which happens to include this simple blogpost. Well, darn it, then the blogpost is going to have to be about the subject of my literary insomnia.

Someone out there — most of you no doubt — have read and perhaps even written many short stories, and you provided some great short story reading recommendations last week. Step forward again, if you’re so inclined. What makes a short story a short story?

(And of lesser importance: Why do I lose sleep over these sorts of questions?)

8 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: What Makes a Short Story a Short Story?”

  1. Here is what makes a satisfying short story for me, and it is strictly a personal definition:

    The short story illuminates a problem and very often shows compassion for human beings. It often takes what is “ugly” in the human condition and applies understanding, and dare I say, love.

    Because it is short, it is confined to one subject (pretty much.) It is focused. Often the story has revelation, either as part of the story or as an effect on the reader.

    Think of it like this: You have a neighbor who drives you nuts, who makes you want to move out of the house you love, etc. (the story problem.) Then, somehow, someone comes along who knows the history of this person and what has made them the way they are (the role of the short story.) As you learn about the life of this person you come to understand them, become aware of your own shortcomings in dealing with this type of personality and where you might grow and learn. It is possible to make a friend of this person you previously disliked.

    You have been brought back to the essential human condition of how difficult it can be to be human, and you might remember that everyone is working very hard, every day, to be free.

    That is my rather melodramatic definition. When the Atlantic Monthly published short stories every month I really looked forward to them. The New Yorker also publishes fiction and the difference between the two was very marked.

    Without fail, after reading the Atlantic’s stories, I would feel hopeful for mankind. After reading the New Yorker’s I would feel lousy about being human. For instance, Judy Budnitz is a short story writer who creates very effective “worlds” and situations, and her stories are whole. Personally, I find lacking, some measure of redemption, or illumination of how to transform the ugliness which the story has formed around. I haven’t read much of Budnitz so it’s not too fair of me, but I happen to think that the purpose of a short story is to GIVE something to the reader. In other words, don’t just tell me what I already know (the world is the pits, people are crazy, blah blah) but please please please, share some wisdom, some grace, some love.

    All my favorite short story writers know about love. This subject is something I’m going to be consumed by today, I can tell. Thanks for the forum in which to share these thoughts.

    An hour from now I will probably have a totally different definition in my head…

    PS Andromeda, I think you lose sleep over such things because of how much you care.
    *** Therese Harvey

  2. Erin Anais Hanson

    I wrote my first short fiction in order to apply to UAA’s MFA program thinking that it would be good to send a piece in the genre for which I was applying.

    The previous summer I had spent a fun weekend in Ketchikan with my uncle and John Straley. Since Straley was the only fiction writer I sort of knew, I called him up and asked if he would read it. He agreed. After he read it he called to chat.

    “Have you ever written a short story before?” was his first question. Not a promising start.
    “Okay. Well, here’s my two cents. A short story should be a clear, crystalline moment. It should stay in one place in space, time, and character, and one thing happens that suddenly shifts and shows you another facet. And that’s it.”

    Needless to say, the story that I had sent John was not pure and crystalline, it was leggy and confused. I re-worked the story, but I didn’t apply with it. I then spent the next year doing nothing but writing short stories. Every single story I wrote, I kept John’s advice in mind. I think it’s one of those pieces of advice that I will always remember.

    Also, just to throw it in there, I think Winesberg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is one of the greatest books ever published. In general I’m not a short story reader, but these linked stories are fantastic.

  3. (My earlier comment didn’t seem to “take” but my computer is glitchy today so I don’t know what happened. My apologies if this duplicates.)

    The short story illuminates. It often takes what is “ugly” in the human condition and applies understanding. Because it is short, it is confined to one subject. It is focused. Often the story has revelation, either as part of the story or as an effect on the reader.

    My favorite short stories have an element of compassion for human beings. They subtly offer an enlightenment about a situation. At the end of a short story the reader should have learned something or been brought to the light about something.

    I don’t think a writer starts with an agenda of teaching but the form itself is succinct and aims at producing a feeling, a revelation, a reaction in the reader. Where a novel may seek to entertain, I think short stories seek to evoke a revelation; it is an illustration in order to promote understanding.

    Many of my favorite short stories offer a way of making peace with an otherwise untenable fact of life. I remember reading Chekhov’s “Lament.” Have Kleenex handy! Without the last 15 sentences or so, it wouldn’t be a short story, it would be more like an opening to a novel. It is the twist of perception (in writer or reader) that makes something a short story.

  4. More often than not, short stories are practice for longer forms; most short story collections are sophomore entries from novelists-to-be. They're also just the ticket on certain evenings or weekend afternoons when an attention span or ability to commit is, well, short.

  5. I was reading Tobias Wolff's comments (linked in orig. post) and he answered a question I have wondered about: why the short story form isn't more appreciated in these times of short attention span.

    He highlights the structure of the short story and its demand on the reader. Certainly all good writing has no superfluous sentences but in the short story form it is even more so.

    My personal feeling is that the short story is a premium form (as opposed to a starter form for would be novelists)which strives to boil down story elements in order to leave the reader with a very visceral, single, emotion or response. It is a very potent form – when done right.

    When I think of my favorite short story writers, they all have a compassionate relationship to humans. My least favorite short story types merely illustrate a crappy element of human life with no corresponding relief or illustration of the "what do we do about this" question.

    (This is a very difficult topic to articulate!)

    I think, after all this thinking about it, that for me, a short story's purpose is to leave the reader with a sense of wonder about some aspect of being human.

    Therese Harvey

  6. It just occurred to me that the purpose of the short story (when done right) is to make the reader think and/or feel (rather than simply be entertained). Now I know why the form is not so popular! Damn.

  7. Here's a quote on the topic that I used in a paper about Nancy Lord's work: “Specifically rejecting the novel's inclination to deliberate and expound on reality, short stories ‘challenge’ knowledge by manifesting a skepticism toward totalization and synthesis; that is, by forgoing sequentiality in favor of isolating an event, the genre questions the desire to confer significance upon an event by placing it within a larger, contextualizing pattern” (Michael Trussler, "Suspended Narratives: The Short Story and Temporality"). I also like Charles May's ideas about the novel laying out a world versus the short story assuming a world in order to open cracks in it or challenge it.

    Eric Heyne

  8. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I love all these comments! Thanks Erin, Therese, Eric and others. You've helped move the discussion past simple structure and into the "spirit" of the form. I'm mulling what all have you have said about lots of important "C"s: crystalline moments, compassion, and "cracks" (your paper's line about challenging synthesis is going to be my personal thought of the day, Eric). Thank you!

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