This post was written by Stephen Tuttle, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.
As a fiction writer, my preferred form has always been the short story. Although I once drafted an entire novel, the long form doesn’t suit me. I love to read a good novel (please, ask me why I love Moby-Dick), but when I sit before the blank page or the blank screen, I never imagine the kinds of narratives that might require three hundred pages. Or even one hundred. Twenty seems indulgent.
The development of the modern short story is well documented. Emerging in the late 18th century, short stories rose in prominence with the literary periodicals that published them. A flurry of new publishing venues provided new opportunities and new constraints for writers of fiction. For writers like Washington Irving, a limited word count put welcome pressure on writers. “[T]here is,” Irving wrote, “a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of this kind.” The story or tale, according to Irving, stood in opposition to novels and their “pages of careless writing.”
I’m not here to criticize the novel, not its looseness and not its bagginess. I’m here to celebrate that “nicety of execution” Irving saw in the shorter form. As Steven Millhauser has observed, “The short story…is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.” In the short story, that is, we have less time for beginnings, middles, and ends, less space for rising action and dénouement. At every turn, the short story writer must ask what’s essential and what only seems to be. What we’re left with, when we’ve pared back all those inessentials, are these highly compressed, carefully chosen images, thoughts, and fragments. Short stories reduce everything to one thing and make that one thing shine.
Grace Paley’s “Samuel” is one of my favorite short stories. In about 1000 words, it narrates a moment that feels as big and as human and as tragic as any novel I know. Every time I read it, I ask myself how Paley does it, how she squeezes so much heart and so much pain and so much humanity into those few words. But the answer is plain enough. Paley hints at backstory but doesn’t linger there. She describes the setting in spare terms. Most of the already limited dialogue is in summary. Most of the characters go unnamed. While it would be easy to say that Paley might have given more attention to each of these elements, it’s clear that the story doesn’t need more of anything. Because what remains is a perfectly-distilled, devastating depiction of a single moment that nobody wanted and nobody can escape. Though Paley could have filled books with descriptions of grief, the image of young boys standing close together, “leaning and touching shoulders and arms and legs” is more than enough to break my heart.
The value of brevity and concision is one poets have understood since forever. The same can be said for aphorists and fabulists and anecdotists and joke tellers. There have always been writers writing in very small spaces, benefiting from the compression of a limited word count or limited amount of time or space on the page. And for every Ishmael arguing that a mighty book requires a mighty theme, there’s a William Blake seeing a world in a grain of sand. In fact, it was only a decade or so after the publication of Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael’s says that “[n]o great or enduring volume can ever be written on the flea,” that Emily Dickinson placed the weight of mortality on the wings of a fly. That one seems to have endured pretty well.
And maybe that’s why I’ve turned, in recent years, to even shorter forms. Flash fiction is a name we often give to short stories of around 1000 words. Microfiction stays closer to 250. Drabbles aim for an exact 100. But irrespective of subcategories and precise word counts, these are all forms that attempt to find that perfect balance of hard-won emotion in a highly-compressed space. These forms encourage a kind of storytelling in which, like poetry, every word matters, and the writer has nowhere to hide. Charles Baxter argues that in longer-form storytelling, there is time and space for history and context and buildup and conflict and so much else, but in these shorter forms we sacrifice nearly all of that. We don’t even have space for the action that leads to reaction. In these very short stories, it’s all reaction. Baxter calls this “the fiction of sudden stress.” To me, that sounds like high praise.
For those interested in further reading, you can’t go wrong with Yasunari Kawabata’s marvelous Palm-of-the-Hand Stories or Sandra Cisneros’s brilliant vignettes in The House on Mango Street or Italo Calvino’s enduringly strange Invisible Cities, or anything, literally anything, by Lydia Davis, a master of the literary miniature. This list could go on and on, but that’s an irony I’d rather not indulge.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or, the Whale. Penguin Classics, 2009.
Irving, Washington. Qtd. In Charters, Ann. Story and Its Writer an Introduction to Short Fiction. Bedford St Martins, 2023.
Millhauser, Steven. “The Ambition of the Short Story.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/books/review/Millhauser-t.html.
Paley, Grace. “Samuel.” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.
Baxter, Charles. Introduction. Sudden Fiction International. W. W. Norton. 1989.