Saturday, February 26, 2011

Alice Munro's "Axis"

Alice Munro once said that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but “I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way.”

I have always argued that there is a short story way of seeing “reality” that is different than the novel’s way of approaching “reality.” But, as my current research on authors’ views of the short story suggests, the only ones who seem to agree with me are short story writers. Readers, by and large, especially academic readers, seem reluctant to make generic distinctions between the two forms.

Frank O’Connor once suggested that the short story does not deal as the novel does with problems of the moment, but with what John Millington Synge calls “the profound and common interests of life." The short story, claimed O’Connor, is a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.”

I have suggested in other places that one of the reasons for the short story’s focus on the “profound and common interests in life” is the form’s origins in myth and folklore, which Mircea Eliade has argued, narrates, “primordial events” in consequence of which human beings became what they are today. Myth, says Eliade, teaches human beings the primordial stories that have “constituted them existentially.”

I argued in my previous post that Stephen Millhauser’s story “Getting Closer” was quite clearly a story that dealt with a primordial, universal event about the nature of “happening,” not just a story of the moment about an obsessive young boy who goes on a outing with his family.

My colleague Lee commented on my previous post that he thought “Getting Closer” was a poor story because, as he says:
1. It blasts its message at us.
2. The sensibility at the heart of the story is inauthentic. Nine-year-olds don't perceive the world in this way, seeing death under the 'shining skin of world' (ugh - trite!).

I would agree with Lee if Millhauser meant the story to be a realistic account of the boy’s mind and experience. However, as I tried to show by referring to Keats’ Ode, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (as well as Millhauser’s own opinions about the nature of the short story form), “Getting Closer” is a profound and subtle exploration about the basic notion of things taking place in time—something human beings, both through religion and through art—constantly combat.

Alice Munro’s story seems much more realistic than Millhauser’s. The characters think and act like real people in the real world; the story moves along in time quite naturally, once we move back in time to an event that occurred fifty years before. On a realistic level, “Axis” seems simple and straightforward, recounting an event of some consequence experienced by the two young women in the story.

However, it is my opinion that Munro’s story, in spite of its realistic appearance in contrast to Millhauser’s fantasy, is also about a primordial, universal event that constitutes human beings existentially. One of the things the story is about is the primordial experience of “time,” of which Munro has said:

“Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change.” “Memory,” she says, “is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of.”

“Axis,” which appeared in The New Yorker on January 31, 2011, is, in my opinion, a good example of what Alice Munro calls a “short story way” of perceiving reality; it is also a good example of Munro’s typical short story concern with “the profound and common interests of life,” a primordial event, as Eliade says about story that constitute human beings existentially—a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.”

The story begins by locating two young farm girls—Grace and Avie--in space and time--fifty years in the past, waiting for a bus to take them home from college for summer vacation. They are defined by their gender and their social class—young women, who have enrolled to find a husband, but who may become teachers, which would be a defeat. Grace is fair and voluptuous; Avie is lively and challenging

On the bus Avie tells Grace about a dream in she had a baby that cried and cried until she took her down in the basement and forgot about her; she then has another baby who is easy and delightful. When grown, the second child knows about the abandoned one, but can do nothing about it because the first child has known no other life.

Whereas Avie wants to have sex with her boyfriend Hugo because she thinks it would make him more manly, Grace keeps her virginity intact in order to keep her boyfriend Royce interested in her. Grace is in love; Avie is not. Avie is more interested in Royce.

During the summer, Royce visits Grace on her parents’ farm. On the bus he goes through the town where Avie lives and sees her on the street. She has quit college and Hugo has graduated and got a teaching job; they plan to marry. Royce sees her as lively and pretty and has the urge to get off the bus and not to get on again. But he knows that would get him in a lot of trouble.

Grace has told her parents that Royce has graduated, but the truth is, he walked out on his last exams because he through the questions idiotic.

Royce is obviously not in love with Grace. When she tells him that the Acacia is her favorite tree, he sneers, thinking, does she have a favorite fence post? He is primarily interested in getting her to bed. Royce wonders why she is willing now when earlier there were many opportunities and she drove him crazy with her “vaunted virginity.”

When the family is away from the house, Grace goes to bed with Royce.” He plans to be easy and gentle with her, but, “This notion was on the point of being left behind. She didn’t seem to require such care. When they were “far enough advanced” not to have heard the car, the mother comes into the bedroom and is shocked, but Royce tells her to shut up, gets dressed, and leaves. Grace asks him to take her with him, but he acts as if he does not hear her.

On the road, Royce thinks of what he calls the “insanity” of Grace’s family and how he let himself be drawn into it. He sees a tower of ancient looking rock, which he later learns is the edge of the Niagara Escarpment and is captivated by it. “Why had he never been told anything about this? This surprise, this careless challenge in the ordinary landscape. He felt a comic sort of outrage that something made for him to explore had been there all along and nobody had told him.” At that moment he decides to forgo philosophy and political science and take up geology. Later, he tells people how the sight of the escarpment had turned him life around and only vaguely remembers he had been there to see a girl.

In the Fall, Avie comes to school to pick up some books and runs into a young classmate named Marsha. Both Avie and Marsha had sent Grace letters but had heard nothing from her. Marsha says: “Somebody said she had colitis. That’s when you get all swollen, isn’t it? That would be miserable.” Hugo and Avie had gone camping on Civic Holiday during the first week in August, and she has become pregnant.

Now the story shifts to the present fifty years later. Avie, now in her late sixties, is on her way to visit one of her six grown children. Hugo has been dead a year and a half. Avie has led a domestic life, having skipped all the women’s liberation movement and the liberation of the sixties. “She was what she was, and reading Leonard Cohen wouldn’t be any help to her.”

She runs into Royce on the train. He has never married, is retired, and is on the way to a little fort, about which has written a book. He tells her he remembers that bus trip on the way to see Grace when he saw her on the street and she looked “irresistible.” When he tells her he wanted to get off the bus, Avie keeps repeating, “I never knew.” Royce asks her if she had known, would she have agreed to meet him, and “without hesitation,” she says yes. He asks, “With the complications and all?” and she says yes. His response is: “So it’s a good thing? That we didn’t make contact?” She does not even try for an answer. He says “water under the bridge.” He says he wants to show her something and to wake him up before they reach Kingston. “Not so far off from giving her automatic orders, like a husband.”

As they leave Kingston, Royce tells Avie that there are great slabs of limestone one on top of each other like a grand construction. But in one spot, this gives way and you can see something else. “It’s what’s known as the Frontenac Axis. It’s nothing less than an eruption of the vast and crazy old Canadian Shield, all the ancient combustion cutting through all the limestone, pouring over, messing up those giant steps.” He tells her to remember to watch for it when she comes this way. She says “Thank you. I’ll remember.” He nods again and doesn’t look at her. “Enough.”

In the last section, we move briefly back in time to when Avie’s first pregnancy was well advanced, and she got a brief letter from Grace. In the letter Grace says she has heard that Avie is married and pregnant. Grace says that she dropped out of college, “due to some troubles I have had with my health and my nerves.” She says he remembers the dream Avie told her about the cast-off baby: “It still scares the daylights out of me.”

Avie remembers the conversation with Marsha and the story about Grace’s colitis. “The tone of Grace’s letter seemed off kilter, with some pleading note in it that made her put off answering. She was feeling quite happy at the time”

She asks Royce if he has heard anything from Grace, and he says, “No, why should I?” She says she thought he might have looked her up, but he says “Not a good idea.”

The last paragraph reflects Avie’s understanding of Royce’s response:
“She has disappointed him. Prying. Trying to get at some spot of live regret right under the ribs. A woman.”

I apologize for summarizing the story in such detail, but unless you subscribe to The New Yorker, you may not have read it.

Alice Munro does not title her stories randomly. So after reading the story five times now, I have tried to understand how the title reflects the significance of the story. The usual dictionary definition of an “axis” is a straight line through a body on which the body turns. The axis mundi would, therefore, be the center of the world.

The Frontenac Axis that interests Royce in Munro’s story links the Canadian Shield with the Adirondack Mountains in New York. The Canadian Shield is part of a huge area of water, forest, and igneous rock that occupies 50 percent of Canada’s total land area, stretching in a huge crescent from the Labrador coast, through Qu├ębec and Ontario, into the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. The most notable topographical feature of the Great Lakes Lowlands is the Niagara Escarpment, a high ridge of limestone cliffs that runs about 250 miles north from Niagara Falls through the Bruce Peninsula to the Manitoulin Islands in Lake Huron.

Archeology is, of course, concerned with spatial layers that reflect temporal events. Stories are temporal actions that reflect spatial significance. As C. S. Lewis once said, for stories to be stories, they must be a series of events; yet at the same time it must be understood that this series is only a net to catch something that has no sequence, but rather something more like a state or quality. As Victor Hugo once said, "Nothing sequential is applicable to God."

Munro is too smart not to be aware of the contrast between time as being marked by a series of solid layers stacked on each other in space and time being something that constantly moves. The paradox of this stillness that continually moves reminds us of the paradox of the word “still” in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The literary critic Murray Krieger in a famous essay entitled “Ekpharasis and the Still Movement of Poetry” has pointed out that the word “still” means both “not moving” and “still going on.” In the artwork, a “here-and-now” unique concrete action, by means of aesthetic pattern, echo, and repetition, becomes a "forever-now motion." Thus, in the artwork, we perceive both motion and stasis at once.

Although we are temporally caught up in the turn of time, we are trapped like fossils in the spatial layers of the past. It is the short story, in the hands of great artists such as Alice Munro, who, like Stephen Millhauser, takes her cue from William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” As Millhauser says, “think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Steven Millhauser, "Getting Closer"

I have always had this nagging notion that if I could figure out what makes a short story by a great short story writer so…well, you know…great, I could come close to figuring out what the basic characteristics of a great short story really are.

I know, I know, it is not that clear-cut. After all, in seeking to find out the generic qualities of the short story generally, one first has to admit that there are many different sub-genres of the form. There certainly seems to be significant differences between the short stories of that great short story writer Alice Munro and that great short story writer, Steven Millhauser. The former seems bound to some notion of realism (whatever that means) and the latter seems more aligned with the imaginative. This does not mean that Munro’s stories lack imagination or that Millhauser’s stories have no contact with reality. After all, the conventions of realism are no less literary conventions than the conventions of irrealism (whatever that means). It just means that knowing how to read a story by Alice Munro does not necessarily mean one knows how to read a short story by Steven Millhauser.

Or does it? Because they are short stories, regardless of the seeming difference of their “reality assumptions,” do the short stories of two seemingly different short story writers, such as Alice Munro and Steven Millhauser, have qualities that are common to the short story generically but that are not common to the novel?

At least one thing that Munro and Millhauser have in common: The New Yorker is willing to pay them a fairly decent fee for the right to publish one of their stories. Good on you, New Yorker, good on you! I have read Steven Millhauser’s story “Getting Closer,” which appeared in The New Yorker on January 4, 20111, five times now, and I have read Alice Munro’s story “Axis,” which appeared in The New Yorker on January 31 five times as well. I like both these stories very much and could, with pleasure, read them several more times, and I probably will. They do indeed seem radically different. I will try to understand the Millhauser this week and the Munro story next week.

Steven Millhauser, “Getting Closer”

Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” is quite short, taking up about two and a half New Yorker pages—about seven columns. The central character is a boy, “nine, going on ten.” The point of view is third-person limited, meaning that the narrator is inside the boy’s mind, but not inside the mind of the minor characters—the grandmother, the sister Julia (13), the father, the mother. The event is a Saturday family outing to Indian Cove to go swimming in the river there. Those are the characters, the point of view, the setting in time and space. The question the reader asks next, of course, is: What happens?

But “happens” is precisely what Millhauser’s story is about. This is not a story about a particular happening, but rather a story about the essential significance of “happening.” The story begins with the boy’s readiness to begin the day’s activity. But as soon as the narrator (who is not the boy, but who stays within the mind of the by reflecting his thoughts in a much more sophisticated way than the boy could express) says the boy is “ready to begin,” the narrator reflects, “Though who’s to say when anything begins really?” After considering the various possibilities of when the day begins, the narrator reflects that the boy knows that it will truly begin when he enters the water. But the boy is not eager to rush into things; he enjoys prolonging the excitement of moving toward the moment he enters the water.

The story then shifts to the activity around him—his sister, Julie, age 13, splashing in the water, his mother telling him to run along, his grandmother sitting in a chair under a pine tree, the details of the physical world around him, his memory of the way his father and grandmother talk to him. The boy stands in a specific place in space and thinks that behind him lies the entire world and before lies the entire world. He likes standing there thinking such things. As he moves toward the water’s edge, he feels everything has led up to this moment when the day will officially begin. But he wants to hang on.

“He’s shaken deep down, as though he’ll lose something if the day begins. If he goes into the river, he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin you’re using things up.”

The boy begins to feel nervous that when the day begins, things will rush away from him, and he sees everything ending, that ending is everywhere, embedded in the beginning. Via the narrator, the boy reflects: “They don’t tell you about it. It’s hidden away in things. Under the shinning skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone.” He thinks that the sun is setting, his grandmother is dying, his mother is growing old, Julia’s dying, his father is dying. But he thinks if he stands still, maybe he can keep it all from happening, things will stop and no one will ever die. Again through the narrator, he reflects:

“You can’t live unless there’s a way to hold on to things. He can’t go back because he’s already used it all up, he can’t go forward because then it all begins to end, he’s stuck in this place where nothing means anything, it’s streaming in on him like a darkness, like a sickness he’s seen something he isn’t supposed to see, only grownups are allowed to see it, it’s making him old, it’s ruining everything, his temples are pounding, his eyes are pounding, he feels a scream rising in his chest, he’s going to fall down onto the sandy orange earth.”

But his sister calls to him and with a “wild cry that tears through his throat he steps over the line and begins his day.” And with this the story ends.

So what is this story about? Apparently not much of anything, but essentially about the ultimate meaning of everything. It’s about what all stories are about, about life in its quintessential movement in time, about the basic human desire to escape time, to defeat death. It’s why we have religion, why we write poetry, what constitutes the essential heroism of humanity. The boy experiences the ultimate anxiety, the sickness unto death.

Melville’s Ahab expresses it best:

“Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. 'Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.”


Fitzgerald’s Gatsby also defies it. When Nick tells him he can’t repeat the past, his response is: "Can’t repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
At the end of the novel, Nick reflects:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Nick survives and so does Ishmael, but they are not heroes. They do not attempt what mere mortals say cannot be accomplished—defeat time, defeat death, which is, of course, the secret of Christ’s message.

What the boy experiences in Millhauser’s story are intimations of mortality. It is what Ishmael discovers about the whiteness of the whale:

“When we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues--every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper…. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

It is what Keats understands about the Grecian Urn’s ability to stop time and achieve immortality:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
…….
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
……..
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Stephen Millhauser has a perceptive understanding of the short story’s unique qualities, which he expressed well in an essay in the New York Times a couple of years ago. Here are a few excerpts. The URL for the essay is listed below:

Steven Millhauser, “The Ambition of the Short Story,” New York Times, Oct 3, 2008
The short story — how modest in bearing! How unassuming in manner! It sits there quietly, eyes lowered, almost as if trying not to be noticed. And if it should somehow attract your attention, it says quickly, in a brave little self-deprecating voice alive to all the possibilities of disappointment: “I’m not a novel, you know. Not even a short one. If that’s what you’re looking for, you don’t want me.” Rarely has one form so dominated another. … The novel is insatiable — it wants to devour the world. What’s left for the poor short story to do?
……………………………………..
Of course there are virtues associated with smallness. Even the novel will grant as much. Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection. The novel is exhaustive by nature; but the world is inexhaustible; therefore the novel, that Faustian striver, can never attain its desire. The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.

…………………………………….
Can it be that the little short story dares to have ambitions of its own? … I imagine the short story harboring a wish. I imagine the short story saying to the novel: You can have everything — everything — all I ask is a single grain of sand. The novel, with a careless shrug, a shrug both cheerful and contemptuous, grants the wish.
………………………………………

But that grain of sand is the story’s way out. That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” Think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.
………………………………

The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers. The novel prefers things in plain view. It has no patience with individual grains of sand, which glitter but are difficult to see. … The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe.
……………………………….
Therein lies the immodesty of the short story, its secret aggression. Its method is revelation. Its littleness is the agency of its power… The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.


http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/books/review/Millhauser-t.html


Next week, I will make an effort to understand Alice Munro’s “Axis.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Paris Review Interviews: Part II

This completes my survey of the Paris Review Interviews. I plan to collect more author comments on the short story from interviews and essays in a later post. My goal is to synthesize all these comments to discover if there are significant unifying author notions about the form.

Donald Barthelme, 1981
The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one.

How does “form” arrive at, or discover, or create, “truth”? Barthelme’s notion seems to be based on the postmodernist assumption that reality is a process rather than a product, that is, reality is a construct, a fiction, not some “stuff” that you stub your toe on, regardless of Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone. The focus of formalism has always been on “how” rather than some dubious “what.” The short story, it seems to me, has, since Poe, always been more concerned with process rather than product, with formal unity rather than mimesis.
Erskine Caldwell, 1982
[To transform a simple incident into a story] you get a kind of fever, I suppose, mentally and emotionally, that lifts you up and carries you away. You have to sustain this energy you’ve gotten to write your story. By the time you’ve finished, all your energy, your passion, is spent. You’ve been drained of everything.
James Salter, 1993
Above all, [the short story] must be compelling. You’re sitting around the campfire of literature, so to speak, and various voices speak up out of the dark and begin talking. With some, your mind wanders or you doze off, but with others you are held by every word. The first line, the first sentence, the first paragraph, all have to compel you. Further, I think, it should be memorable. It must have significance.
Grace Paley, 1992
There’s an equal amount of adherence to craft in both [poetry and the short story]. I would say that I went to school to study poetry, that’s how I learned to write. I got my courage for the way I write stories from first writing poems. … Still, there’s always that first storytelling impulse: I want to tell you something . . .
Harold Brodkey, 1991
There are about nine hundred million aphorisms about writing that are true, and one of them comes from Bill Maxwell—all short stories should be written in a sitting. As I understood it, that meant that you could spend weeks, months, years writing drafts, outlines, notes, sections, but sooner or later you ought to take all that and sit down and write a draft in a sitting, in a single flight—which might take days or weeks but without interruptions—so that the broad elements and the nuances cohere, certain echoes, certain resonances fit together, and there is real motion in the narrative—not a false motion linguistically grafted onto the story. Words have a strangely changeable, contingent kind of meaning, and as T. S. Eliot said in one of his famous essays, the music of language carries more of the realer meaning than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.
Julio Cortezar, 1984
It’s like improvising in jazz…. I’m a bit embarrassed to sign my stories sometimes. The novels, no, because the novels I work on a lot; there’s a whole architecture. But my stories, it’s as if they were dictated to me by something that is in me, but it’s not me who’s responsible.

Paley refers to something more common to short story writers than novelists—what she calls the “storytelling impulse.” This probably stems from the short story’s debt to oral storytelling. Many short story writers, like Caldwell, for example, talk about a “kind of fever,” a compulsion to tell the story; this perhaps has something to do with the kind of event that storytellers feel compelled to tell, as well as the obsessive sense of unity of the short story. Salter seems to suggest that the compulsion of the teller to tell is matched by the compelling nature of the story. Salter also is right, I think, to suggest that the story must have “significance”; it cannot just be “something that happened.” Brodkey’s citation of Maxwell’s notion that the story should be written in “one sitting,” one “single flight,” has been echoed by may writers and speaks to the sense of unity that the short story requires. Cortezar’s sense that the short story possesses him is related to this notion of compulsive unity.
Raymond Carver, 1983
Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another. That end is good in and of itself, I think. But changing things through fiction, changing somebody's political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no…. It doesn't have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that's taken in reading something that's durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.
William Trevor, 1989
I think [the short story] is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art….. I like the inkling, the shadow, of a new short story. I like the whole business of establishing its point, for although a story need not have a plot it must have a point. I’m a short-story writer, really, who happens to write novels. Not the other way around.
Nadine Gordimer, 1983
Short stories are a wonderful discipline against overwriting. You get so used to cutting out what is extraneous.
Peter Taylor, 1987
The short-story writer is concerned with compression, with saying as much as he can in a short space, just as the poet is. So he has to choose the right dramatic moment for the presentation. If he can do that in writing a story, he can have as big a canvas as he would with a novel. That’s the genius of the short-story writer—finding precisely the right moment in the vital interplay between the characters.

Carver, a short story writer rather than a novelist (and not just because he did not have the time to write novels) reminds us that the short story does not have “to do anything,” does not have to have a social message (although it may have moral meaning). As I have noted before, the short story has never been concerned with social/political ideas. I like Carver’s notion of the writer’s “fierce pleasure” and the reader’s appreciation of something beautiful in and of itself, that has a steady glow. Eudora Welty talks about this idea of a “glow” of the short story, as does Joseph Conrad. Trevor, who admits that he is a short-story writer first, who just happens to write novels, emphasizes that the short story, unlike life, or the novel that tries to imitate life, excludes “meaninglessness.” Borges has talked about this “essential” nature of the short story. And Trevor, like Salter, reminds us that a short story must have “significance,” must have a “point.” Peter Taylor, another short-story writer who happened to write novels, talks about “compression” in the same way that Trevor talks about excluding meaninglessness. And, as Gordimer says, short stories urge the writer to exclude the extraneous. And what is extraneous? Everything that is meaningless.
V.S. Pritchett, 1990
The short story appealed to me straight away because of its shortness, and I preferred it to the novel. It represents a certain vision of reality that consists of isolating the incident. The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.
Russell Banks, 1998
[The short story and the novel] are very discontinuous. For me, they each bear greatly different relations to time. The novel, I think, has a mimetic relation to time. The novel simulates the flow of time, so once you get very far into a novel, you forget where you began—just as you do in real time. Whereas with a short story the point is not to forget the beginning. The ending only makes sense if you can remember the beginning. I think the proper length for a short story is to go as far as you can without going so far that you have forgotten the beginning.
Richard Ford, 1996
Novels are a lot harder to write [than short stories]…because they hold so much more stuff, and the stuff all has to be related and make one whole—at least the way I do it. And from my experience with writing both, I do think writing a long novel is just a larger human effort than writing a book of short stories—assuming that both are good. I used to say that a novel was a more important, a grander literary gesture than a story. And when Ray Carver would hear me say that he’d vigorously disagree, and then I’d always cave in. …. Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.
Mario Vargas Llosa, 1990
I think the novel as a genre tends toward excess. It tends towards proliferation; the plot develops like a cancer. If the writer follows a novel’s every lead, it becomes a jungle. The ambition to tell the whole story is inherent in the genre. Although I’ve always felt there comes a moment when you have to kill the story so it won’t go on indefinitely, I also believe that storytelling is an attempt to reach that ideal of the “total” novel.

Pritchett argues that the short story has a different vision of reality than the novel, which involves “isolating the incident.” George Lukacs has also talked about the difference between detail that describes and detail that is integrated into the significance of the story. Banks echoes Poe’s notion about the story being just so long that the ending keeps the beginning in sight. With the novel, you can forget where you began; with the short story, you cannot. Ford thinks that novels are harder to write, but only because they contain more “stuff.” The short story has never been as interested in “stuff” as the novel; the short story is only interested in “stuff” that is transformed or transcended into significance. Flannery O’Connor talks a great deal about this. Llosa, like Ford, reminds us that the novel is omnivorous, constantly devouring stuff, or perhaps spewing out “stuff.” The ultimate novel would be one that contains all the “stuff” of the world. The ultimate short story would be one that eliminates everything but essential meaning—“Blake’s “the world in a grain of sand.”

Amy Hempel, 2003
I don’t like having anything spelled out. Of course, mystery is not vagueness. Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. Tim O’Brien used to say that stories are not explanations. Certainly if you teach writing you see that some students think they are. They feel they haven’t made their point clearly enough so near the end of the story there will come an extremely spelled-out emblematic section. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.
Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence…. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence
.
Lorrie Moore, 2001
[The short story is] a more magical form. Who knows sometimes where stories come from? They are perhaps more attached to the author’s emotional life and come more out of inspiration than slogging. You shouldn’t write without inspiration—at least not very often. As I’ve already said, in discussing writing one shouldn’t set the idea of inspiration aside and speak only of hard work. Of course writing is hard work—or a very privileged kind of hard work. A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. A novel is a job. (Story writers working on a novel are typically in pain through the entire thing.) But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.
There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.

Annie Proulx, 2009
I think the short story is a superior form. It’s definitely more difficult than writing a novel, and a novella is an unwieldy length. The challenge is to make something that could be a novel but that works better as a short story, and to know the difference. So yeah, some stories could have been stretched out into a novel, but they would have been weaker and certainly not as interesting to write.
The short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. It can be a powerful reading experience. One can go back to a good one over and over and always learn something new about technique. I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literally short and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two.


Amy Hempel echoes many short story writers, particularly Flannery O’Connor, on mystery and the short story. I will come back to this later. I have written about it in some detail in another place. I will also come back to Lorrie Moore’s notion about the paradox that the busier people are the less time they have to read short stories, for it gets to the heart of my central idea that short story writers like short stories more than readers do. Annie Proulx is surely right that the short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. And she is surely right that the general reading public has no idea about what goes into a short story (and therefore does not know how to read short stories, thus often underestimating them).