“I deeply loathe short story collections – filthy trash bags full of abortive novels from writers too lazy to bring their offspring to fruition.” This was Frankie Gaffney’s introduction to his review of June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker, which he went on to praise, but I can’t help but think that some novelists should put an end to their flabby works. Modern novelists remind me of disreputable farmers who inject their cows with growth hormones to earn a few extra dollars. According to Frankie’s assessment, if I had been diligent enough to design my short stories, I would already have 41 novels, which would be a lot.
The short story is on a huge upward trajectory, but attitudes persist that collections can’t be as successful as novels. To be fair, most of these prehistoric sights emanate from London rather than Ireland or the United States. After all, it was us Irish who brought the short story to the United States in the first place, and it is our greatest cultural heritage – after the Irish bass, of course.
It’s ironic that the title “storyteller” is so long for such an abbreviated profession. Why not a shorteur or shortiste? If a story is Mary Lavin’s “arrow in flight,” it’s an arrow that lands in your chest. If this is William Trevor’s “art of insight”, it is insight imbued with strong weltanschauung. For people who casually call it a “snapshot”, it’s a scan of the soul. For me, writing a short story is like exposing the human heart with a scalpel, sometimes with skillful incisions, sometimes with brutal butchery.
Many novels are just short stories that are too long. If a short story can be compared to a single in a greatest hits album, novels are like those rambling, self-indulgent concept albums of the 1970s. How many of us honestly go back to re-read an entire novel? I know I only ever go back to “good bits”. British publishers would have you believe that the short story is a preliminary training ground for the novel, but if you ask me if I’m considering writing a novel, you might as well ask me to write poetry. All writing is words, but the similarity ends there. Short story writers have infinitely more creative minds than novelists because we have to generate many more worlds. We are also blessed, just like poets, with a killer instinct for crystallized truth.
I see the different forms of writing as linked variations on one line:
A poem; flash fiction; a short story; a short story; a novel.
There, right in the center, is the new, the perfect bridge between all forms.
It’s only natural that novelists are jealous of our perception of “laziness” and our ability to adapt our lives to our craft. Look at Dan Brown, who recently claimed his plan for success was to start writing at 4 a.m. I said, “Are you crazy? I don’t get up until eight o’clock and my work will only be better for it. Let me tell you, it takes more mental energy to laser-write a short story than one of those long-winded novels that overflow our shelves.
The abbreviated form is a blessing for the writer and the reader. As a writer, I love instant gratification and ratification. Sometimes I think novelists are so preoccupied with word count that they forget to make every word count. Oscar Wilde understood that it is never good to start from a place where one imposes oneself, noting that Henry James “writes fiction as if it were a painful duty”. By comparison, a short story is light, playful, concise, and witty. Great art is not a matter of length of form; it’s a matter of length of thought behind the form. As Seán O’Faoláin said: “Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the barrel.”
The hardest form
Short story writers also have the advantage of reaching a wider readership through short story anthologies. Where are the novel anthologies? They would be bigger than the phone book. Novelists are more than happy to appear in our anthologies, although that doesn’t guarantee they can write good short stories. As they know each other, they are mainly invited to contribute because of their “big name”.
William Faulkner wrote, “Perhaps every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing in this, it was only then that he started writing novels. I admire the honesty of novelist David Park, who said of his first collection of short stories: “I secretly thought it would be easier than writing a novel, but when I started the transition was surprisingly difficult.” The truth is that the short story is a highly skilled form of prose coveted by many, achieved by few.
I’ve always loved the short story even before my first one was published in 1997. Perhaps it feels even more relevant now, as it fits with the modern awareness that small is better, as in microeconomics, micromanagement, microgenetics. Let’s include another term – microliterature – big in impact, small in structure, and finally let the novel step back and give the short story its rightful place.
Rosemary Jenkinson’s third collection of short stories, Catholic Boy, is published by Doire Press. Bomb Dust appears in Belfast Stories, also by Doire, which launched on June 9 in the Crescent, Belfast. She recently received a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for writing a memoir and was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.