Columns > Published on August 15th, 2014

Prose & Conversation: Death of the Short Story

Over the months of running Bookshots, I’ve gotten a feeling for the kind of books that the LitReactor reviewers enjoy. Everyone has their preferences and that’s fine by me, but I was a little startled to discover that Brian McGackin, poet and LitReactor columnist, would not touch a short story collection with a ten-foot greased bargepole. There followed a lively exchange when I asked him why, and eventually we decided that the whole subject needed a proper airing under the heartless spotlight of Prose and Conversation. Brian thinks the short story is so over and wouldn’t care if he never saw one again. I disagree. Let’s see if we can use the medium of scholarly debate to resolve our differences.

Brian: So correct me if I’m wrong, but you actively enjoy short stories and read them for fun?

Cath: I love them and read them all the time. How about you?

Brian: I do not ever read them under any circumstance. No, that's not true: I read Miss Marple.

Cath: Miss Marple rocks. I’m a big Agatha Christie fan. I also love writers like G.K. Chesterton. Have you read The Father Brown stories?

Brian: No, I haven't. I generally don't like short stories, for many reasons.

Cath: I’m curious—name some of those reasons.

Brian: Oh God. Well, for one thing, short stories are never subtle. There's always this Thing they're trying to do, and they beat you over the head with whatever this Thing is because it's all one big exercise in ideas.

Brian: Getting a few short stories published is completely meaningless.

Cath: Miss Marple isn't an exercise in ideas…

Brian: A lot of this comes from my college reading/writing experiences. Mysteries are exempt from my short story hate, I would say, because the Thing is the mystery.

Cath: Ah okay—you're talking about Literary short stories.

Brian: Yes.

Cath: So we'll exempt Christie, Chesterton, Maugham, and all the writers of "genre" short stories from the discussion and focus on Literature. But even when you do that, there are still literary short stories I really enjoy. For example Jane Gardam, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood are all writers whose short works chime with me in a way longer works can't.

Brian: In what way?

Cath: Because I feel that novels sometimes dilute the message. For me, longer works often lack the same impact as a really good short story.

Brian: I've always felt that short stories were for ideas that the writer wasn't able to condense into a poem but wasn't willing to work into a novel, the castoffs.

Cath: I know what you mean. Some of them do read like exercises. Quite often I see collections up for review from a debut author with an MFA under their belt, and know I’m going to get (what I think of as) the "Writers Workshop" collection. Usually this consists of one really good story and a whole lot of weaker material, as padding. You sense that the weaker stories aren’t inspired directly, but come from "outside" the writer—because someone else (a professor) originally suggested the premise.

Brian: I think perhaps I'm biased because my experiences have mostly come in the classroom, but I've yet to find a short story/short story collection on my own that has debunked my theories on them.

Cath: How hard have you looked?

Brian: Not very hard on my own, but I've still read a fair amount. They're ubiquitous in classrooms—especially writers' workshops—because no one has discovered yet how to adequately teach novel writing. I believe they only exist in such high volume in the US today because so many writers were force fed short stories and short story writing during their academic days.

Cath: So are you saying that writers produce short stories because they believe they are easier to write than full-length fiction? Let me be a little more specific—I’m talking about writers at an early stage in their careers here.

Brian: It's very difficult to workshop a novel over the course of a semester, but it's relatively simple to workshop a short story or 5. Then when these writers become novices no longer, they're habituated to short story writing. It's too late for them.

Cath: That sounds very final, but I agree, broadly, with everything that you've said so far and wish the whole publishing industry could hear it, because way too many "workshop" collections hit the shelves every year and, with a few exceptions, most will stay unread on the shelves. But let’s talk about the seasoned writer, someone experienced. How do you feel about short stories from that kind of pen?

Cath: You heard it from Brian, everyone! Stop writing and submitting short stories right now!

Brian: I still think that short stories are predominantly works that the writer doesn't have either the time or the energy to flesh out in full, and there's actually a fair amount of evidence for this kind of thing, because writers often turn to their short stories when looking for new novel ideas. They expand their earlier work.

Cath: Okay, but Alice Munro never writes anything else. Neither did Chekov. So you can’t say that either of them "didn’t have the energy" to produce a longer work. The short story is *the* way they chose to express themselves.

Brian: In Chekov's case, he lived through a time when short stories were much more practical. They were essentially the television of literature. Without so many other distracting mediums, there was more room for a broad range of length diversity in literature. Alice Munro is Canadian and I have no understanding of their ways and rationales.

Cath: Haha. But if what you said about authors mining their short stories for novel ideas is true, then that is terrible, because the way I see it is that each story idea "belongs" to a particular length of work.

Brian: But there are plenty of instances where authors have cannibalized their earlier work to support a later, longer work. Ender's Game was originally a short story, as was Flowers for Algernon, quite famously.

Cath: And both should have stayed that way, especially Flowers for Algernon, which is a perfect example of a short story that really works.

Brian: Lolita was taken in large part from an earlier novella (the short story's tall cousin) called The Enchanter. Google "short story into a novel" and there are countless sites proffering advice on how to turn that short story glint into novel gold.

Cath: Right but all that means is that novels sell better than short stories, so authors want to expand a perfectly good short into something longer. It doesn't mean the shorter version was bad to start with and is better when expanded, which seems to be what you’re arguing for.

Brian: Maybe they sell better because short stories are lame. A big problem many people have with poetry is that it's often vague and difficult to understand. It's usually very short, though, and its condensed nature means that poets need to get as much in as possible in the little room they have with which to work. But this means that some people love poetry, and some people hate it, not wanting to sift through meaning all the time. Novels provide more room to unpack symbols, obviously, but also to add countless layers of depth and meaning. Short stories exist in this weird limbo where, instead of adding more depth and meaning but staying poetically difficult, they often unpack one Thing to an obnoxious degree, making it dull and obvious.

Cath: I understand your reasoning, but if we take an example we both know, like Flowers for Algernon, you can see how that would never work as a poem (I don't even know if I would put poetry in the same basket as novels and short stories), and it also doesn't (really) work as a novel/la. My way to explain that is to say that the idea behind Flowers for Algernon has a certain "length" and that a short story is the perfect way to capture it.

Brian: Maybe it's the packaging, then, the connotation of the phrase "short story" that turns me off. As insane as it may seem, in my mind there is a very distinct difference between a "short story" and a "story." Flowers for Algernon is a story, one that you can easily summarize for someone and condense into your own parable version.

Cath: Do you feel then that a short story is a distinct form? That it’s qualitatively different in some way from a novel?

Cath: And 'Atlas Shrugged' is what, 1000 pages? If only Ayn Rand had stuck to short stories.

Brian: Maybe, at least unofficially. To the idea of a "story" vs. a "short story," there isn't necessarily a moral to Flowers for Algernon, but there isn't much lost in paraphrasing the story for someone else.

Cath: If you paraphrased that story you would lose all the pathos.

Brian: Sure, but the person you're explaining it to would likely pick up on the same notions, and much depends on your ability as a verbal storyteller. That could be the case if you're repeating any fable, fairy tale, or myth, really. Essentially, though, Flowers for Algernon is a story, not what I would consider a "short story." This sounds insane, because obviously it is a short story, but they're different to me somehow.

Cath: We need to revisit our definitions then. It sounds like what you’re saying is that what we call "short stories" only work when they take the form of a legend, myth, or fable: the description of a single incident, with a limited cast. Often these types of stories can be strung together to form a longer and yet still coherent work. Steinbeck did something a bit like this with Cannery Row. Robert Altman did it on behalf of Raymond Carver when he turned Will You Please Be Quiet Please? into Short Cuts.

Brian: I think what we're learning is that I actually dislike a very specific type of short story

Cath: The kind with Meaning?

Brian: The kind that feels like an Exercise to be Finished Later, a 20-page germ.

Cath: But look at it from the other end of the telescope: did you ever read a novel that you felt could have been condensed into 20 pages without you losing one iota of the value? I know I have.

Brian: Yes, but often I've had a stronger feeling that it was a story that hadn't been worth telling in the first place.

Cath: Right, so maybe because there's so much less commitment involved in writing a short story, it has become the depository of the Half-Baked Idea.

Brian: Aha! So it is laziness!

Cath: Not for Chekov it wasn’t! Or Carver. Or Munro. I’d argue that the very best short story writers can use the form to produce something perfect, a small moment that deserves to be captured, but which would fade into the background of a longer work. But in the wrong hands, the short story, like all weapons of power, is dangerous, so that’s why you get all these collections of so-so material from writers who aren’t as skilled as the greats.

Brian: I think short stories are the fad diet of the literary world. There are people who eat healthy and exercise—use the short story for good—and there are people who are looking for a quick and easy fix to a problem, the problem being that they have an idea that they would like to get out and/or are looking to be published by any means necessary.

Cath: But getting a few short stories published in whichever literary mag caters to your genre is the traditional route to building up a resume, so you can't blame budding writers for being tempted by the Devil's Candy. Perhaps we should ban literary magazines?

Brian: Perhaps. I don't think they really do much good: if a young writer wants to be a novelist, he or she should be writing novels, not wasting time on short stories and wasting even more time on submitting them. In writing, resumes don't matter. If you write a good novel, your next step is to either self-publish or find an agent, and the agent doesn't care about your resume. The agent cares if the novel is any good.

Cath: Now that is an interesting point of view because the perceived wisdom is that you need to get your foot in the door somehow before anyone will take you seriously. Many, many new writers believe (I think) that getting a few short stories published is an important step in the right direction.

Brian: Getting a few short stories published is completely meaningless.

Cath: You heard it from Brian, everyone! Stop writing and submitting short stories right now!

Brian: I'm sure it's helpful in the way that going to the batting cages or driving range is helpful for someone who wants to get better at baseball or golf, respectively, but Simon and Schuster et al don't give a damn if you've had 30 stories published in college-run lit mags across the country if your novel is crap. On the other hand, if your novel is amazing, why would they hold it against you that you haven't been trolling literary magazines?

Cath: Because the editor looking through the slush pile at Simon and Schuster probably worked on the same literary magazine as the guy who published your story. Publishing is a small world, and the unspoken hope is that a few personal contacts will work magic and turn your heap of crap novel into literary gold. Looking at some of the "literary" novels that get published, I can only imagine that there is some truth in that idea, so writing short stories could be seen as a form of networking.

Brian: Publishing is a small world, yes, so it's much more important that you write an excellent novel that your agent can push wholeheartedly to the editors whom he or she knows from working on that same literary magazine years ago.

Cath: Agreed. So did you ever write a short story Brian?

Brian: I wrote some as assignments in college, but I didn't care for them, and I hated having to sit through endless inanity listening to everyone else's short stories, too.

Cath: Was the poetry any better? Because bad poetry…

Brian: Bad poetry is terrible, but it's usually 2 pages or less, whereas a bad short story can be 20 or more.

Cath: And Atlas Shrugged is what, 1000 pages? If only Ayn Rand had stuck to short stories.

Brian: If only.


About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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