by Jan English Leary
Nobody tells a poet, “Nice sonnet, but it would be really good if you could write an epic.” Occasionally, in a writing workshop, someone will say, “You know, this could be a novel,” as if bestowing on the story manuscript the highest compliment. However, a short story that needs tightening is not the same as a potential novel. Not that similar ideas can’t be shaped to work for both a story and a novel—if the pace is more leisurely, or the scope of the material sufficiently broad, then maybe the material does belong in a novel. But stories are not abridged novels, nor are novels overblown stories.
Why is it that in MFA programs, as well as the publishing world, short story writers are made to feel like beginners, the junior members of the club, whereas the novelists gain higher esteem and recognition? Although I wrote my short stories first, it wasn’t until after my novel was published that the collection found a home. Agents were more open to reading my novel than my collection. Reviewers were more willing to write about my novel. Bookstores were cautious about carrying my collection.
I came to the market at a time when the short story was less popular. In the late 1970s John Cheever’s and Eudora Welty’s collected stories won big prizes and were best sellers, but for the next 30 years short stories were greatly outnumbered in both nominations and awards, and that, of course, drove the market. (In the past 40 years, only six short story collections have won Pulitzers, along with six winners of the National Book Award.) This is changing—a bit. With Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (2000), Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2009), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), and Phil Klay’s Redeployment (2014), short stories have again started winning big prizes. Alice Munro’s 2013 win of the Nobel Prize for Literature was a huge endorsement for the form, but short story collections still remain less well represented.
Munro steadfastly refused to write a novel (I know Lives of Girls and Women, first published in Canada in 1971 and reissued in the United States in 2001, is often shelved as a novel, but I think it is a collection of linked stories). Both Strout’s and Egan’s works are linked stories as well. Was that a strategic decision to avoid being sidelined? Should the distinction even matter? Probably not, except that the publishing world seems to care about such labels. I just wish the stand-alone short story could get the love it deserves.
In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, first published in 1962, Frank O’Connor addressed the unique nature of the form: “If one wanted an alternative description of what the short story means, one could hardly find better than that single half sentence, ‘and from that day forth, everything as it was changed and appeared in a different light to him’.… Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.… As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.” Is that perhaps why some of us who have taught the short story find resistance among students? Is short fiction too dark for many readers? Or is that the form, rather than being that of an embryonic novel, is actually sophisticated and challenging?
In “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the short story “provides a single and unique effect” toward which every word contributes. He also said that a story had to be constructed so it could be read in a single sitting, that the experience of taking in the whole story was integral to the short story and impossible for a novel. Rust Hills, in his guide Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, wrote, “a successful short story will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form, excepting perhaps lyric poetry.” In a 2005 interview in Blackbird conducted by Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken said, “A short story is a blow to the solar plexus; a novel is a lingering illness from which you may never recover.” I find reading short stories more challenging because I have to orient myself immediately and pay close attention. A novel is more forgiving of inattention. I crave the intensity that comes from a particularly taut story. That harmonious relationship Hills describes means that all the parts of a short story are dependent on each other; the author does not have the space—or the desire—to hold the reader’s hand at each step of the way, forcing them to consider every piece. The form demands extreme control from the writer, and extreme attention from the reader.” Faulkner told Jean Stein in a 1956 Paris Review interview, “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds that he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
In her introduction to the Best American Short Stories 1983 Anne Tyler coined the term, “the spendthrift story.” She wrote, “The most appealing short-story writer is the one who’s a wastrel. He neither hoards his best ideas for something more ‘important’ (a novel) nor skimps on his materials because this is ‘only’ a short story. This may explain why Raymond Carver—a short-story writer and poet, but never a novelist—consistently produces top-quality stories, while those of his novelist contemporaries are more uneven.” A characteristic of a spendthrift story is its ability to stay with the reader long after the reading. It opens up possibilities for depth in a few words, offering, glimpses of more behind the scenes. These can be references to the past, to the character’s inner thoughts, to an act contemplated in the future—the moment of deep insight that contributes to McCracken’s “blow to the solar plexus.”
“A spendthrift story has a strange way of seeming bigger than the sum of its parts,” Tyler adds; “it is stuffed full; it gives a sense of possessing further information that could be divulged if called for. Even the sparest in style implies a torrent of additional details barely suppressed, bursting through the seams. A writer may be a spendthrift, of course, and still produce stories of the most elegant economy.” That spendthrift writing economy is what puts short fiction masters like Munro, Carver, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, and Katherine Mansfield in the same ranks as the great novelists.
Do such categories as novel or short story matter when it comes to great writing? Not unless they stand in the way of getting work out into the world. Call a strong short story collection by any name, but let it see the light of day. Whether it comes in a large or a small package, a gift is always appreciated. Writing my first novel was a rewarding experience, and I’m grateful it’s out in the world, but I’m especially glad to see my collection appear after such a long wait. I am passionately fond of the short story. After all, you don’t forget your first love.
Jan English Leary is the author of two books: a novel, Thicker Than Blood (Fomite 2015), and a collection of short stories, Skating on the Vertical (Fomite 2017). Her fiction has been published in Pleiades, Carve, The Minnesota Review, The Literary Review, and other journals. She lives in Chicago with her husband.