This short essay was written in advance of an event at the 2014 Dublin Writers’ Festival. The event, “The Art of the Short Story” was a conversation between Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack, chaired by Stinging Fly editor, Thomas Morris.
—By Thomas Morris, editor of The Stinging Fly
Whenever a critic writes about the short-story form, they seem to always begin by saying, “There’s a dearth of critical study on short stories.” And if we’re comparing them to novels—which always seems to be the case—perhaps it’s true. But if you look hard enough, there’s actually a hell of a lot written about the short-story form. Granted, it’s mostly precious stuff about it being a “higher” Art than the Novel, and then some deathly-dull thing about short stories being connected with the “oral tradition”—but it’s not a critically-neglected form. It’s just a form in need of new critical ideas.
As a reader and writer, I see myself primarily as a short-story person. I become very quiet when I’m amongst a group of people talking about novels and novelists. For a long time, I thought it was testament to something lacking in me—that I surely couldn’t be interested enough in books if I hadn’t read seventy-eight John Updike novels. And the feeling remained for a long time: how could I even begin the journey to identify as a writer if I didn’t read all these books that other people were telling me were so great?
But I’ve had my counselling sessions and I’ve arrived at a belief that feels both banal and true: sometimes we need short stories and sometimes we need novels. Frank O’Connor, in The Lonely Voice (sigh; another reference to that bloody book), speaks of people reading novels to assuage loneliness. In contrast, he says, people come to short stories to confront their loneliness. (A typical O’Connor dichotomy: sensible-sounding at first, but increasingly—and fruitfully—problematic on reflection.) He then goes on to talk specifically about what short stories do and, in trying to characterize their essential activity, he quotes Pascal—“the eternal silence of those infinite spaces frighten me”. It’s a knotty quotation, and one I’ve struggled to understand for a long time. But I’ve now chosen to believe it describes a sensation akin to those impalpable headspace-lonelinesses, those moments of half-clarity you get when you’re drunk and alone in a night-club toilet, sending text messages to yourself. Or when you find yourself walking around the supermarket feeling utterly despondent for reasons you can’t quite fathom.
And I do seem to encounter moments like these more often and more intensely in short fiction. Firstly, in the crises experienced by the characters, and thereafter magically, vicariously, I experience it for myself through the act of reading. In this regard, I think there is truth in O’Connor’s assertion that we come to short stories to stare head-on at our loneliness. Maybe that’s why novels are less defined by this encounter: we would struggle to sustain such a confrontation over a longer duration. (And perhaps that’s why the novella/short novel has been the ideal length for so many great twentieth-century tales of alienation?) But again, I’m falling foul of a common misconception here: that short stories need defending or explaining against novels. They don’t. And we shouldn’t compare the two: they’re like chalk and Jesus.
But if you do happen to buy O’Connor’s argument that short stories ⇔ loneliness, a more interesting question is one about the nature of loneliness. And specifically, I believe, the nature of loneliness as we experience it today. How do you begin to understand, for example, what’s happening in your head when you skype with someone you love, and who just happens to live 3000 miles away? Is this a different kind of mind-confusion to receiving a letter from said loved one? What about a text message?
In its continual negotiation with loneliness, the short story form—broadly understood—is one that has been consistently concerned with the Self and its relation with itself. Sometimes, to a frustrating, solipsistic, head-up-its-own-arse degree. (We’ve all read the contrived mouse-trap short stories, with the built-in character epiphany which clunks down on the tale’s tail-end.) But the nature of self is changing. And our stories should—and will—change accordingly.
Of course, everything I’ve written so far is a lie.
You cannot trust a writer to tell you what’s what in fiction. Essentially, all writers are propagandists for their own work and their own concerns. They will tell you ‘x is really about y’ because their sole interest is ‘y’—they see it and read it into everything. It’s why they write about ‘y’, and why they talk so bloody much about it.
And for every ‘y’, there’s a ‘z’ and a ‘p’ or a ‘zp’ or ‘pz’ and so on. For each short-story-theme brought forth, you can name a dozen authors whose work exhibits the very opposite traits.
If I’m being honest, I don’t believe there are any suitable definitions for a short story—any such ark would be too small to house such beautiful animals. As with our definitions of Art, we’ve made it all up: it, too, is just a story! And a story—I actually do believe this—can be absolutely anything it deigns to be; or rather, anything we understand it as. So long as it’s believable, wholly incredible, deals with a character in crisis or stasis, takes place over one day or a hundred years, contains revelation and denial, experiments with form, sings like a pop song, reveals a human truth, moves us to tears, makes the familiar strange, the strange familiar, asks difficult questions, resists easy answers, and ends with the low thud of a slammed door, or the high-pitched squeak of another opening…
Thomas Morris devised and edited Dubliners 100: Fifteen New Stories Inspired By The Original (Tramp Press, June 2014). His debut story collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, will be published by Faber & Faber in 2015.