Short and sweet

By Austin Kleon:

Recently I have been reading lots of short fiction — books like The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, David Foster Wallace’s collection Oblivion, the latest issue of Granta (titled The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists), Andrei Ivanov’s two wonderful short stories by Estonian Loomingu Raamatukogu, I.B. Singer’s The Spinoza of Market Street, pieces from Dalkey Archive’s The Best European Fiction 2010 and so on. Indeed, to think of it, many of my favourite writers are very well versed in the short form: Babel, Borges, Kawabata, Kiš, Cortázar, Dahl, Nabokov, Pessoa, Rushdie are all recognized masters of short story, so I am probably rather inclined to like this particular genre.

Not everything that I’ve come across has been uniformly strong, but this is one of the beauties of short fiction that it is much less of a commitment in terms of time and effort and therefore if something doesn’t quite live up to my expectations it is relatively easy to brush aside the disappointment and simply take the next story, while if a book lets me down after I’ve slugged through four or five hundred pages, I tend to get rather seriously pissed. At the same time, if a story is really good, it can be pure bliss in a very concentrated way — and the form plays no small part in this particular effect.

For me, the essence of this is beautifully captured in a post by Marisa Silver (a writer of short stories herself) at the Elegant Variation, worth quoting at length:

To me, the short story differs from the novel in the way that, say, a watercolor differs from an oil, or a concerto differs from a symphony. Each form is telling a story, but the medium chosen by the artist informs  (thank you, Mcluhan) the message. Obviously, an author doesn’t choose to write a short story instead of a novel because it’s shorter. She writes it because the shorter form suggests something different about the objectives of the narrative than does the longer form.  For me, the short story generally conveys an existential situation, rather than a fully-fledged narrative plot. Of course things happen within the pages of a compelling short story, sometimes startling things, reversals of character, of fortune. But for me, the plot serves to explore a state of being. When I read a great short story, I don’t imagine that by the story’s end I will have been delivered to some wholly new place in a character’s life. Instead, I revel in the experience that the story’s author has delivered what a story can deliver: she has stopped time and expanded a moment so that I am able to witness the myriad elements that make up any brief experience of human interaction. With the best short story, you come to the end but your mind races forward, propelled by all the story has expertly suggested but not overtly stated. It’s magic.

Although not every short story will neatly fit this mold of “expanding the moment” and there are indeed also stories that do take their reader to a different place in characters life, in general I am very much in agreement with above. It absolutely nails the experience that I have had with some of the best experiences of my recent reading — stories such as DF Wallace’s Incarnations of Burned Children, Bruno Schulz’s Mr. Charles or Georgi Gospodinov’s Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots are all just a couple of pages each, but have lingered with me for weeks after I read them.

Oh, the picture above is by Austin Kleon of the Newspaper Blackout Poems fame.. for some reason, WordPress wouldn’t let me link the image to his site – but go and check him out.


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