In praise of the short story

Snicklefritz

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From today's "Bookmarks" newsletter of The Guardian

Bijou is best: what makes a short story great​

by Lucy Knight​
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Alice Munro was “always trying” to write a novel. Between every book of short stories, she would think “well now, it’s time to get down to the serious stuff”, she told Aida Edemariam in a 2003 Guardian interview. Though some critics suggested that her Booker-shortlisted short fiction cycle The Beggar Maid could constitute a novel, and her 1971 book Lives of Girls and Women was marketed as a novel (it is really a collection of interlinked stories), it was short stories that she always came back to, and which she excelled at again and again.

But why do we think of novels as better/harder/more “serious” than short stories anyway? Writing in the The New York Times Book Review in 2004, Jonathan Franzen criticised the Book Review’s former editor Charles McGrath for his comparison of young short story writers to “people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range”.

The very best short story writers, Franzen countered, are nothing like golfers on practice tees. Munro, whom he refers to as “the Great One”, was rather “a gymnast in a plain black leotard, alone on a bare floor, outperforming all the novelists with their flashy costumes and whips and elephants and tigers”.
Author of short story collection Send Nudes Saba Sams made Granta magazine’s Best of British Novelists list in 2023, despite technically not being a novelist. Sams admits she was initially drawn to write short stories because they “felt more manageable.It sounds like I’m saying short stories are easy. They’re not easy; they’re slippery and can take many, many drafts,” she says. “But it is possible to read each draft through on a bus journey, or on a lunch break, and then let the ideas develop while you’re busy with something else.”

That said, there is nowhere to hide with a short story. “In five or 10 or 20 pages – the length of time someone might spend gradually settling into a novel – you need to give a reader a complete, contained experience,” says writer and critic Chris Power.

To create this complete experience within a short word count, you have to rely on what is going on outside the sentences, Sams thinks. “A short story requires that you don’t put everything in; you don’t have the space and that’s the point. It’s an exciting place to be. You can push a character right to the brink of a revelation and then abandon them, or shatter a whole world and leave the reader to imagine the fallout.”

Perhaps that’s why – in my experience at least – short stories tend to be more haunting than novels, leaving you wondering about the characters sometimes months or years after you’ve finished reading about them. “The very best short stories, whatever their style or subject matter, are intense experiences,” Power says. “They leave you stunned.”

If you haven’t yet read any of Munro’s work, read Lisa Allardice on five of her favourites to find some good places to start. And if you need more short story recommendations, here are 50 of the greatest, chosen by leading authors. Prepare to be stunned.​
 

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