I have finished a rough draft of the presentation I am making next month at the conference on the short story at Angers, France. The title of my presentation is: "Why Many Authors Love Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not." Today, I am posting my third blog entry of authors' comments on the short story. I plan to post one more such blog filled with author comments before I go to France. In my presentation at Angers, I attempt to organize comments I have drawn from 100 short story writers abut the form into significant categories and, by synthesizing them, make connections between the categories and draw conclusions about the generic characteristics of the short story.
Authors on the Short Story: Part III
Herbert Gold: The short story must “tend to control and formalize experience and strike hot like the lyric poem.”
Alberto Moravia: “The novel has a bone structure holding it together from top to toe, whereas the short story is, so to speak, boneless… The short story is made up of intuitions of feelings, whereas the novel is made up of ideas.”
Clare Boylan: “In the short story, the world is in the detail and that small random acts can set ordinary lives alight or consume them to ash.”
Charles D’Ambrosio: “I know why I read some stories over and over . . . to me it’s some mix of the harmony, I hear music of the creation; the stories I’ve read over and over again . . . I can feel the whole thing . . . the whole thing in any one of the sentences, you know, I love that aspect of the short story; it’s almost like reading a poem.”
Lee K. Abbott: “I'm really intrigued by the possibilities that the story offers. In the first place you can try and fail it a whole lot more per year than you can at a novel. In the second place, I use up material at a frenetic kind of pace. The stories are dense. The stories are speedy. The stories are sometimes as demanding to read as they are to write, and frankly writing a couple hundred pages or three or four hundred pages of that kind of thing would kill me, exhaust the hell out of me”
Richard Ford: “Short stories want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space. For another they succeed by willfully falsifying many of the observable qualities of the life they draw upon… You could say that the most fundamental trait of short stories, other than their shortness, would seem to be audacity…. Short stories are the high-wire act of literature… Being the slightly discomforting/intensely pleasing aesthetic agents they are, short stories are often good on the strength of sheer nerve.”
Ernest Hemingway: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one eighth of it being above water."
Robert Olen Butler: “Fiction is the art form of human yearning.” Butler cites Joyce’s famous theory of epiphany--that moment in the story when something about the human condition shines forth in its essence. Butler says this is the result of the yearning present in all the separate organically resonant moments in the fiction accumulating to a critical mass. It is just that because of its brevity, these two moments typically occur at the same time in the short story. “The final epiphany of a literary short story is also the shining forth of the character’s yearning.”
Joyce Carol Oates: "The perennial question 'Is the short story an endangered species?' would seem to assume a perilous contemporary climate for the survival of this purely literary form." Oates doubts the 21st century will be as hospitable to the short story as the 19th and 20th, since the short story, unlike the novel, is "invariably literary."
Anton Chekhov: "The short story, like the stage, has its conventions. My instinct tells me that at the end of the novel or a story I must artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom I have already presented. Perhaps I am in error."
V. S. Pritchett: “The short story wakes the reader up. "It answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock."
Raymond Carver: “It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring--with immense, even startling power.
William Boyd: “Something occurs in the writing - and reading - of a short story that is on another level from the writing and reading of a novel. The basic issue, it seems to me, is one of compression versus expansion. The essence of almost every short story, by contrast, is one of distillation, of reduction. It's not a simple question of length, either: there are 20-page short stories that are far more charged and gravid with meaning than 400-page novels. We are talking about a different category of prose fiction altogether.”
Anne Beattie: “I don’t think that short stories have all that much in common with novels, not poetry with short stories. I like each form or genre for what it inherently possesses…a story re-creates for me more directly what my sense of the world is; a short story wrier has to use language differently from a novelist.”
Robert Stone: “The short story is like a pitch in baseball. It’s one continuous movement that ideally has to, like a pitch, break and then with a kind of retrospective inevitability end up in a catch’s mitt. It’s a beautiful form when it works, but it’s very difficult.”
Ron Carlson: “I’ve become a writer who thinks in short stories…I consider each short story a world of its own, and I try to make each world dense and rich and beautiful… Stories at their best offer the reader the illumination and discomfort of a charged moment.” I love the short story; I’d write them forever, regardless of the fact that it isn’t a particularly sharp career move.”
Dan Chaon: “The short story as a species tends to be a solitary and lonely creature…They are meant to be experienced singly, with a long, silent pause between each one.” “One of the things I love about the short story as an art form is its ability to evoke the ephemeral quality of being alive… My hope and ideal is to rescue ‘missing’ moments in time, to take a snapshot of those fleeting, life-or-death visions, before they vanish back into the haze of daily life.”
Stuart Dybek, 1997: “What I love about the short story is that you can jump into it where it’s already geared up at a high level, start out already in third gear and then kick it into fourth and fifth.”
Rikki Ducornet: “Perhaps for me writing stories is a way of engaging in the infinite, the mutable, the evocative world which is the world of the imagination.”
Deborah Eisenberg: “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I was writing a piece of music…sometimes in the back of my mind there’s a musical model.”
“There’s something that I can’t quite put my finger on about the demands of doing something long, something that looks just slightly more conventional.”
Tim Gautreaux: “The short story, of course, is a wonderful form that I love dearly. It is a manageable form. You are in and out in six or seven thousand words. The novel, of course, has to keep going beyond that to one hundred and thirty, one hundred and fifty thousand words, and it's very easy to lose your way. It's a quantum leap from story writing.”
Adam Haslett: “I think of each story as having a rhythm, an intensity, and I am always trying to find the rhythm that fits a particular story.” “I think of the short story in some ways as the labor toward the perfected sentiment.”
Ron Hansen: What stories do is “give us access to otherwise hidden, censored, unsayable thoughts and feelings now shiftily disclosed in the guise of plot and character…The hungers of our spirits are fed by sharing in the glimpsed interior of others.”
Bret Anthony Johnston: “I think the reason short story collections don’t sell as well as novels is because they’re much more difficult to read. Novels might require a longer commitment, but stories demand a deeper concentration and a more intense focus, and a lot of people would rather not exert themselves in that way… Those that do buy and read literary short fiction are among the best and the brightest readers we have. They’re willing to take risks, to invest their attentions and emotions.”
Andrea Lee: “I feel a bit ill at ease in the novel form because I’m so used to the intensity and compression of short stories. It’s an odd and rather luxurious feeling to have so much room to maneuver, to describe, to create subplots—rather like moving to a mansion when you are used to apartments. It’s fun, but I think I’ll always love short fiction best, because I am obsessed with structure and symmetry, and somehow it is more satisfying for me to work with these on a small canvas. Again, the word is intensity. I love the way a short story can offer a sharp concentrated insight like a stiletto thrust. I love the way you can experience a whole life time in a few pages, as you do in the lines of a poem.”
Daniyal Mueenuddin: “A short story has a fixed narrative line—it’s like an artillery shell, which is fired out, goes up and lands at a fixed point—but a novel can be discursive.”
Julie Orringer: “When I started out writing short stories I imagined that this was a kind of practice for a novel that was going to come later. As I got farther along in my studies and in the development of my writing I became so excited about the short story as a form I ceased thinking of it and anything I wanted to do as preparation…I was happy to think that I might always work in the short story form.”
Amy Hempel: “The trick is to find a tiny way into a huge subject.”