Genre Studies: The Literary Short Story
For anyone interested in pursuing a formal degree in writing fiction, understand you will be reading and writing piles of short stories. This form of fiction is easy to assign, highly conducive to academic discussion, less time-consuming to grade than novels, and dense in its demand on technique, form, and style.
While any story can be short, a literary definition of the genre describes it as an intellectual/emotional roundhouse kick to the brain. Listening to readers and writers of short stories, you’d think they were discussing a recreational drug. Having read hundreds of these stories, that’s not too far from the truth.
Sadie Stein, an editor for the Paris Review, says in an interview for The Atlantic says, “A short story, when it’s good, doesn’t draw you into a comforting world; it shakes you up. It’s not … what you want to read before going to sleep: It’s a different kind of intellectual and emotional commitment.” These stories evolved from simple diversionary stories for commutes, in an age where one didn’t drive themselves to and from work. They’re still written for a bright, alert mind, not for someone looking for an easy read or an escape from bigger concerns.
Still, the requirements have shifted more to the skill side rather than the entertainment factor. James Cooper Lawrence published an article in the North American Review 1917, A Theory of the Short Story, in which he describes the broad requirements of the form: “A short story is a brief tale which can be told or read at one sitting. This definition requires two things of the story: (1) that it shall be short and (2) that it shall possess coherence sufficient to hold the reader’s or listener’s unflagging interest from beginning to end.”
Catching and retaining the interest of an audience, then, is the main challenge for current short story authors, as the demands of literary journals have gone up. This is the main form narrative writers use to impress one another, the way highly published poets write for other poets, or musicians show off technical and experimental skill for other equally talented musicians. It’s the form to choose when looking for prestige and professional recognition within the field. Lawrence’s description still applies, though. Few people can agree on a definitive word count at which a short story ceases to be “short” enough, but the defining question is, “Is a person compelled by interest to read this in one sitting?” The issue of length, now, simply demands that choice be not just possible but likely.
Reading short stories is a fabulous way to learn about the structure of stories, experience the wide potential of language, and gain exposure to other authors’ unique skill sets. Know, however, that you should never spend your elective reading time on a work that does not appeal to you. This doesn’t mean you should tear down an author with poor reviews because their subject matter wasn’t something you liked, it means put down what you dislike and move on to find work that resonates with you. There are more short works out there than any person can read in a lifetime, so there is something for everyone! Go about searching for material with the intent to expand your horizons, so explore first from where you’re comfortable and branch from there.
A great place to start is through a genre you love. Search online for anthologies of new authors who write what you like. Science fiction anthologies abound, as do romantic short fiction collections. Fantasy short stories are marvelously eye-opening, as are horror shorts by classic authors and rising names in the business.
Topics of interest, too, can provide an avenue for short fiction. Collections are often assembled and marketed to raise awareness of an interest group, like stories of cancer sufferers and survivors, or tales from Deaf communities. Short fiction collections offer a cross-section of culture when the pieces are written by members of a minority community to describe collective values or shared experiences.
Many authors, especially those of any literary renown have some short fiction collections, as do most well-known authors of classic literature. Reading a single author’s complete collection of work (or one or two curated story collections) provides insight into their style across different projects, and can be an excellent approach to learning some of their signature skills.
If you really don’t have a place to start, consider subscribing to accredited literary journals. These are the organizations recommended to any writer interested in getting traditionally published. Many state universities publish their own Literary Reviews, so check to see what’s local. National collections tend to take samplings from these publications for their national collections, so for more diversity in perspectives, look to those. Poets and Writers has a database of literary magazines and journals to review that you can narrow by genre and subgenre to better focus on what appeals to you as a reader (and writer). (http://www.pw.org/literary_magazines)
These are just two examples. Search for annual collections that can keep your reading current, as well as special-event productions like Object Lessons.
“A short story, when it’s good, doesn’t draw you into a comforting world; it shakes you up. It’s not, as Lorin has pointed out, what you want to read before going to sleep: It’s a different kind of intellectual and emotional commitment.” (Sadie Stein, the Review‘s deputy editor)
“come away with a feeling for how varied, sophisticated, and inexhaustible the short story form really is. There is no one right way to write a story.” (Lorin Stein, who is also the editor of The Paris Review)
“Here are some things I’m always glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters (who says we readers all crave likable characters?); bone-scraping emotional honesty; a strange, off-kilter voice; unreliable narrators; surprise; a solid command of language; a story written with urgency and profundity; great, weird titles (titles matter); the assigning of language to something I have never thought about but should have. Humor.” (Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor, The Best American Short Stories)
“A short story is a brief tale which can be told or read at one sitting. This definition requires two things of the story: (1) that it shall be short and (2) that it shall possess coherence sufficient to hold the reader’s or listener’s unflagging interest from beginning to end.” (James Cooper Lawrence, The North American Review, 1917)
This is actually just a really cool MA thesis on short story form from 1913.
“My first answer was that it was something which could be read in one sitting and brought a singular illumination to the reader, sudden and golden like sunlight cracking through heavy cloud. I went on to say that in my opinion a “real” short-story was closer to poetry than to the novel.”
“For a minute, let me remind you that, for me, the perfect short story is written with a poet’s feel for language, with a poet’s precision, and that the shape and sounds and rhythms of the words are more commonly part of the work’s effect than is usually seen in the novel.”
“The reader came looking for the intellectual-spiritual “hit” of the great short and instead was mildly amused.”
“lurk in our hearts and change our life view”
“OK, so far my definition has reached here: A short story is a narrative, rarely, over 10,000 words or below 500 words, more commonly 1,500-5,000 words — a single-sitting read, but with enough time and weight to move the reader. It is narrow and focused to produce a singular effect, the story’s meaning, most commonly thru events affecting some change or denial of change in an individual. All aspects of a short-story are closely integrated and cross-reinforcing; language, POV, tone and mood, the sounds as well as the meanings of the words, and their rhythm.”