In his Introduction to Best British Short Stories 2013, Nicholas Royle opined that the widely-used phrase "Flash Fiction" was an inappropriate term to describe stories that happened to be "rather short."
I agree. In my opinion, it is the shortness of a short story that usually determines its unique qualities. And the shorter the story the more it may embody these unique qualities: e.g. more language precision than language mimesis, more implication than clarification, and more mystery than manners.
For various reasons, some short stories just need to be shorter than others; they do not constitute a separate genre. When I was trying to teach students the art of the short story, I often found it helpful to use relatively short examples to compel them to read not merely for plot, but for precision—to focus on a short story as an art object that signified something—not merely a "mirror in the roadway" realistically reflecting so-called real life. I even created a software program called "Hyperstory" to force them to read in this careful and intense way.
I found this so helpful that when I edited a collection of short stories for classroom use, I chose a large percentage of short stories ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 words—for example Anton Chekhov's "Misery" (2,000 words), Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill" (2,000 words), Katherine Ann Porter's "The Grave" (2,500 words), Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" (1,500 words), and Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" (1,500 words).
Other well-known stories of this length I included were: Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," Updike's "A&P," Stephen Crane's "Episode of War," Joyce's "Araby," Sherwood Anderson's "Hands," Welty's "A Memory," Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl," Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father," and many more.
Although these stories could be "read" once through in about 15 minutes, Hyperstory encouraged my students to spend much more time with them than that.
Since Royle has called attention to the fact that the 2013 volume of BBSS includes a few more "really-rather-short stories" than previous volumes, I thought this week I would comment on what I think makes my favorite three of those "rather-short" stories work.
Alison Moore, "The Smell of the Slaughterhouse"
A writer doesn't have a lot of time to waste on background in a short story, and Moore makes it clear in the first few lines that this is a story of a woman who has left her husband and come back home to stay with her father.
Whatever detail one uses in such a short piece must be thematically significant, not merely mimetically real. Rachel's bringing in a bit of dirt or shite into the house on her shoe, making her leave the "offending shoe" outside, is a detail that the reader should register. The word "offending" and the fact that her father fetches paper towels and carpet freshener plus his curt remark "Is that it?" to refer to her small suitcase suggests her feeling of being childlike and her father's lack of kindness and concern.
The suggestion of dirt is echoed when Rachel washes her hands with her father's soap, an important motif, for the one background detail in the story is Rachel's memory of her father's heavy carbolic smell in a brief sterile scene with her mother. And all it takes is the one reference to "bruising" that she covers up with foundation to indicate why she has left her husband.
Her feeling of fragility and childlikeness is further indicated by her sense that her room has not changed, almost as if she has never been away. And there is some pathos for Rachel in the father's question when he brings in the tea and lemon sponge fingers on a tray, "Shall I be mother?" for we know the mother is gone.
Rachel's memory of her mother focuses on her tending to the father's needs when he comes home from work: a cloth on the table, something home-baked, quiet jazz on the stereo. The simple query about his day, and the couple's one-word remarks, suggest, if not the father's cruelty, his indifference.
The story ends with the metaphor of the smell of the carbolic soap, as Rachel looked at her father's well-washed hands and thought no one would know he had just come from the abattoir. "Except that the smell of the carbolic soap with which he scrubbed himself daily, and whose reek is on her own skin now, has come to seem to her, over the years, like the smell of the slaughterhouse itself."
The story works the way many good short stories work—suggesting some universal truth about the mystery of the human condition with the bare minimum of detail, giving the reader just enough to encourage him or her to identify with the main character's emotions and new knowledge. Beneath the smell of cleanliness there is the residue of dirt, the smell of flesh and death and indifference. Always there is the secret of human coldness and human vulnerability.
Adam Marek, "The Stormchasers"
Short stories often cannot be "read" the first time. One needs to have the end firmly in mind before one can read the story meaningfully from the beginning. It is only when the reader sees the storm the mother has created at the end of this story that the father and son's searching for storms outside the house takes on significance.
Thematically, the story deals with what happens in reality vs. what happens in the imagination. When the boy asks if a storm can suck up a person, the father knows he is "imagining the tornado like a straw in the sky's mouth." When the boy comes down wearing his Macintosh and yellow sou'wester, the father recalls he bought them for him before he was born, "when he was just in my imagination. When they return home to find the house trashed, the father wants the boy to think it was caused by a tornado, not the result of the storm in the mother's mind. Finally, we find out that the father's story that the mother had four wisdom teeth pulled out is a lie, a construct of the imagination to protect the boy from the mother's instability.
The storm very economically suggests the gap between the world shared by the boy and the father and the silent, withdrawn world of the mother. This tension is also suggested by the house, which is buffeted by the storm, the wind playing the chimney like a flute, and blowing around the walls like a ghost, but which the father has photographed from the air as a calm green triangle surrounded by a yellow sea of rapeseed.
The father tells the boy they will go out into the physical reality of the storm and he will show him there is nothing to be afraid of. But what is really to fear is the storm inside the imagination of the mother. The fact that the mother feels cut off from the father and son is also indicated by the fact that they both has cornfield blond hair rather than the black hair of the mother—"Yet another thing he got from you, not me," she sometimes says. They listen to pop music on the radio, which the mother likes but the father does not. They go around the roundabout three times, a game they play when the mother is not with them.
When they return home and find the living room in a shambles—the photos swept off the mantel, the television face down on the floor, the boy's toys tipped from his box and the mother sitting on the floor with her head on her knees, her knuckles all bloody—we know what the real storm is—and no game of playing stormchaser can ever catch it. Still trying to protect the boy, it is the father, not the son, who asks, "You okay, mummy? Did you see it, the tornado? When it came through?"
Alex Preston, "The Swimmer in the Desert"
Sometimes a short story focuses on a moment between reality and desire. The title of "A Swimmer in the Desert" embodies these two opposites and introduces the tension between desert actuality and the desire for water in the first few lines.
The context of the story is one of the conflicts in Northern Africa or the Middle East, suggested by the fact that the main character is a soldier and by the references to wadis, the Kush, and IEDs. The object of the soldier's desire is connected to a memory of swimming with his girlfriend Marie back home. He has not swum since he has been here, and he feels "an urgent need" to swim. More than anything he wants to feel water on his body. He knows there is a "religion of water" in this part of the world, and he can see that "God is dancing in the water under the levee. He recalls kissing Marie and it felt like they were swimming, "nervelessly, over deep water."
He is standing watch in a watchtower in a compound, and feels a sudden instinct to walk out. He is so caught up in this escape from reality into desire that he ignores a momentary flash of sun on glass in the mountains above him, and when he hears a crack, it corresponds to the sound of his body plunging into the water and the sound of a rifle from the hill country. The water becomes spiritual reality, carrying in it all that have participated in it—the petals of flowers from a wedding, the sweat of a man who bathed in it at dawn. "Despite the weight of all this, the water bounds along the stream bed, dancing and tear-clear."
The stream the man has plunged into carries traces of the world around him, religiously joining him to that world. It carries his body over jagged shallows into deeper pools where swimming creatures congregate and insect larvae thrust themselves into green depths.
We don't really need the last sentence to know the man has merged with his desire: "A plume of blood escapes like the ghost of a water snake from the hole in his head, is caught by the current, and carried away."
These stories work because what they are about is not specific situations of individual people, but rather the universality of human loneliness, fear, and desire. The fact that they are quite short does not mean they are different than longer short stories—just that the qualities of what makes a good short story are accentuated in them by being honed and polished to give off a glow of significance.