Shorter can sometimes be better
Way back when I first began writing with the intent of publication, it was mostly poetry and short fiction. Perhaps that’s where many people start. A novel was too overwhelming to consider, too much of a commitment. Shorter stories presented a manageable structure, a less onerous task than scaling a wall of myriad characters over hundreds of pages, and thousands of words. And then too, there were all those marvelous Canadian writers who excelled at the form. I gravitated to short stories thinking it was something I could bite off and chew.
There’s a famous quote from Mark Twain who said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” I couldn’t agree more. In many ways, it’s easier to capture the essence of a story, a character’s emotional growth (or lack of) in 100,000 words than it is in 3,000. It takes a greater level of skill to say what you want succinctly than in the rambling freedom of a novel.
There used to be a school of thought that short fiction was a logical stepping stone to the longer, more respected, form of a novel. That it could be used as a tool, an exercise almost, for writers to flex their literary muscles before moving on to novels. Happily, that’s no longer on anyone’s lips.
For readers, there can be something satisfying about delving into a character’s life at a certain point in time and then stepping away. It’s like looking through a window on an evening stroll. We see a snapshot of a life while our imagination is left to complete the picture. Good short stories do this for us.
Here are some of my favourites:
No conversation about short stories would be complete without talking about the master of the form. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, her stories are so subtle, the conflicts skimming just under the surface, that they barely register. And therein lies the beauty. As is now well known, the legendary Munro started writing short stories at her kitchen table as a young wife and mother, because she didn’t have time to write a novel. She found the form captivating and went on to publish 14 original collections. From a small town herself, she based most of her stories there, because “the small town is like a stage for human lives.”
My favourite: Cortes Island. Most memorable line, “What is the point of old women anyway?”
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod
Beautiful stories that capture a single moment in time with brilliant precision, humour, emotional resonance, and a slice of history. These stories dwell on the little things in life, with some more life-threatening and dark. In all of them, they explore the stoic humanism of the everyday man and woman. Quietly overlooked, this collection is a brilliant first book from the son of Canada’s literary hero.
My favourite: The Number Three. Most memorable line, “The single fried egg might be life’s loneliest meal.”
Island by Alistair MacLeod
Readers of my blog know that I’m in love with this man’s writing. His collection of sixteen stories, most of them based in his beloved Cape Breton, doesn’t disappoint. Like his novel, they focus on the complexities of the human heart, in relation to each other, to the landscape, and to our shared history. Like his story, these superbly-crafted stories are perfectly tuned to the importance of memory and tradition. If you love beautiful words strung together to make passages that tell timeless stories, this collection is for you.
My favourite: The Tuning of Perfection. Most memorable line, “And he imagined it was men like them who had given, in their recklessness, all they could think of in that confused and stormy past.”
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
This collection written by the author of All the Light We Cannot See, proves he is a masterful story teller. Each one is so diverse yet captures the details of individual lives with beautiful scope and depth. Ranging from South Korea to South Africa, from the memory of a Holocaust survivor, to a young orphan in Lithuania, this writer can do it all.
My favourite: Afterworld.
The queen of Canadian lit is also a prolific short story writer with eight collections. Her stories include the same sharp dialogue and wicked characters who insist on telling the truth. Some novelists choose short fiction to show a different side of themselves, but Atwood is so remarkable because she can be so many things at once. But as always, she is interested in the politics of gender, art and its creation, mythology, the power of language, and civilization pitted against the environment. “In the end, we all become stories.”
My favourite: Happy Endings. Most memorable line, “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun.”
Though society is unrecognizable since Chekhov’s time, the Russian master’s stories are still familiar to readers who appreciate laughter brought about through tears. He combines unfailing insight into the lives of ordinary people with an uncanny ability to dramatize commonplace situations with gentle humour. A medical doctor, Chekhov’s writing reflects his two basic views: the grotesque horror of life and its irreverent absurdity.
My favourite: The Lady With the Toy Dog. Most memorable line, “...and all the best of a man’s forces, leaving only a stunted, wingless life...”
Best known for his minimalist style and gritty realism, his stories deal with the lives of ordinary people in ordinary situations. His blue-collar characters are crushed by broken marriages, financial problems, and failed careers, but they are unable to articulate their fears and anguish. Often, they mirrored his own problems as he struggled with his inability to fit into the upper middle-class milieu of writer academia, alcoholism, and an unhappy marriage. Considered one of America’s most influential short story writers of 20th century.
My favourite: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Most memorable line, “We all need a pill now and then.”
W. Somerset Maugham
Known as much for his many novels successfully adapted into films. Maugham was a prolific short story writer as well. It may not be fashionable to read him now, but do you really care? His fascinating stories are full of a lost era, the dying days of a doomed empire, inhabited by desperate characters with complex relationships to each other and to a world slipping away. My favourite: The Colonel’s Lady. Most memorable line, “He died in the first flush of his first love and had never known that love so seldom endures; he’d only known its bliss and beauty.”
There are so many other great short story writers - Mavis Gallant, John Cheever, Grace Paley, Ernest Hemingway, Edna O’Brien - the list goes on. If you haven’t spent any time with short fiction, these dark days of winter are a perfect time to open a window into a moment in time of a character’s life. Let me know what you think.
In the meantime, happy reading!