I’ve been thinking about why the short story form really appeals to me lately, particularly after reading a piece at Salon today about how the form has failed to catch on in this era of digital publishing. It’s a little surprising, given that the short story is a greater respecter of time in what has become a hectic, multi-tasking and distracted world. I suppose the article restores my faith in the attention span of humans: we apparently prefer to read long books on our ereaders, perhaps only in snippets at a time. What is more surprising to me is that a full 41% of readers are actually perusing full-length fiction on their phones. Bravo to the patient and near-sighted reader who can make it through Infinite Jest on a smart phone. Extra points for reading the footnotes that way.
I got to thinking about the full-length novel vs the short story. The full-length novel in print form declares your love of reading unambiguously. I love a doorstep-sized book as much as the next reader: they make a great paper weight, look impressive under your arm, and once in a while they spin a tale that keeps you happily trapped for weeks in the thickets of an intricate story. Vanity Fair. War and Peace. A Suitable Boy. The weightier the tome, the more respect they seem to confer upon the reader, as if your IQ can be measured in page numbers.
But I also love a well-told short story, and I have to believe in the value of this medium, because that is what I write. I started The Purana Qila Stories series, because while a novel must hold your hand between the events of separate plot lines, answering questions faithfully and guiding the reader carefully, a series of interconnected but nonlinear short stories says, “Wake up! Watch where you step! There are floorboards missing.” They challenge you to weave back and forth, to recall what you previously read about a minor character and a small action that may have significant repercussions when magnified by the passing of time or change in geography. They are a reminder that neither reader nor author is omniscient, that there may be a gap in our knowledge of a character, a mystery that is not revealed, and that life goes on in between the stories. They are prose poems, giving us just enough information to capture the essence of a moment, a feeling or a fictional person, without meeting the reader’s every expectation.
The short story is an indulgence, allowing me to dip into some alternative universes, while respecting my time. Some are arresting: Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, which my elementary school teacher read to my class when we were seven or eight. Some haunting: Jhumpa Lahiri‘s story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. Or delightful: The Just-So Stories by Kipling.
The written short story is a fairly modern concept, just a blink of an eye in human history. I researched its origins and found a fascinating article in Prospect Magazine by William Boyd about the origins of the short story in print. (Of course, short stories have been passed down in oral traditions since humans first spoke, and illustrated versions have been known to decorate a cave or two.) However, the rise of a literate class with disposable income in the 19th century propelled the rise of magazines and periodicals and drove the demand for short fiction.
Perhaps there is another format that is uniquely suited to the digital age, and perhaps I’m just a 19th century kind of girl. I would to hear about your favorites and what it was about the short story format that made the telling so effective. Do you often wish a good short story was turned into a novel? Or is there a novel that you think would have been better told as a short story?
Lastly, are you glad I went with a respectable title for this post, instead of the first one that came to mind: “We love short shorts”?
Got that awful song in my head now, gah.