Life & Culture

Taut, urgent and elegant - this is why we long for the short story

As a short-story writer, I am often asked by friends and family: ''So, when are you going to write a novel?"


As a short-story writer, I am often asked by friends and family: ''So, when are you going to write a novel?" A literary urban myth persists that a collection of short stories is easier to write and less substantial to read than a novel, as if fewer words mean less work for the writer and less reward for the reader. Yet the opposite is true: every word counts in a short story. Consider the most extreme example of a short story, six words penned by Ernest Hemingway: ''For sale, babies shoes, never worn.''

Well-constructed stories, doing more with less, are like acrobats in a box, performing tricks in tiny spaces, a fact that will be highlighted at next week's London Short Story Festival. The condensed word count allows for elegance, tautness and urgency, as readers become aware of an imminent end. Any overstatement, inaccuracy or flagging moment - so easily ignored while reading a long novel - can kill a short story's delicate form.

Vanessa Gebbie, critically acclaimed for her novel The Coward's Tale as well as the short-story collection Words from a Glass Bubble, and Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, reveres both forms. ''I'm often asked whether the short story is a good grounding for the novel, as if somehow, the longer form is superior to the shorter, or a natural progression,'' she says. ''Having written both, I can say the story and the novel are such different beasts. When a reader says, 'Short stories are always disappointing, as you just get into one and it finishes,' I want to say, 'Read for the pleasure of the words and what they reveal. You have to gift a short story your time and it will gift you itself.'"

Short stories, then, are something of a paradox - they can be quicker to read but they demand more time to delight in and decipher, as their richness and complexities become clear. Take Vladimir Nabokov's story Symbols and Signs, published in the New Yorker in 1948, that focuses on an elderly couple's attempt to visit their son in a sanitarium. The son suffers from a malady of reading symbols into life, yet the story's title is a cue to ''read'' for signs embedded in the text. In a letter to Katharine A. White, The New Yorker's fiction editor at the time, Nabokov described this style as one in which "a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semi-transparent one." The surface story might be straightforward, but seeping through is a bigger, secondary story regarding vulnerability and the unknowability of life.

Magazines such as the New Yorker have long supported the short story in the United States, and a diverse array of American writers - Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Edith Pearlman and Jennifer Egan - have between them won two Pulitzers, the Man Booker International Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the US National Book Critic's Circle Award and the Folio Prize for their short fiction in recent years. But there are also some signs that the short story is gaining momentum in this country.

This month sees the second year of the London Short Story Festival, with participants ranging from Marina Warner and Deborah Levy to Ben Okri and Helen Simpson. The number of British short-story courses and events are multiplying, while prestigious competitions including the Sunday Times EGKG Prize (the world's richest short story award), the BBC National Book Award and the Bridport Prize offer possibilities of cachet and cash. In 2013, Sarah Hall called for a Short Story Laureate, to give due consideration to the form.

Three years ago, the publishers Bloomsbury declared 2012 "The Year of the Short Story", acquiring five new collections and publishing one a month from January to May.

So where does short fiction now stand in market terms against its heftier cousin? Alexandra Pringle, Bloomsbury's editor-in-chief, is cautious. ''There is a shift, yes. The big prizes, the short-story festivals, are all part of a build that's happening. George Saunders winning the Folio Prize was a fantastic step forward. But it's a slow process. Compared to America, England is behind. We would never get a book of short stories on the Sunday Times bestseller list, for example.''

Given that short stories will never make me rich, why do I return to them? The answer, like anything in the arts, is for deep pleasure. I derive satisfaction from writing about the deceptively ordinary, seemingly unimportant events that can define a human being - the short story as pivotal incident, life seen through the lens of the everyday and humdrum. In a novel's vaster space, the significance of these moments can be lost. In other words, to think big, I go small, and write short.

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