I have loved short stories since I was a girl reading Hawthorne and Poe. (Melville was a little sophisticated for me; I had to wait until I was a sulky teenager to love “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and then I took to walking around the house murmuring, “I would prefer not to.” My father, a Melville admirer, begged for mercy.) At the same time that I was reading the great American nineteenth century short story, I was also discovering my father’s library of pre– and post–World War II wits. Dorothy Parker was not just the funny brittle woman at the Algonquin Table; she knew sadness and self-deception from the inside out and she could put it on the page with painful, personal frankness and not a bit of self-preserving paint or pretense. Her sentences are wry, but they bleed (“Big Blonde”). I read S. J. Perelman, the Jewish smart aleck of “Westward Ha!” and Robert Benchley, the urbane gentleman who could keep his head and his martini, even on an ice floe (“Drinking makes such fools of people, and people are such fools to begin with, it’s just compounding a felony”). I read odd, funny, sometimes disturbing James Thurber and used his “The Catbird Seat” to plan my comeuppance of my high school principal.
The great pleasure for me in writing short stories is the fierce, elegant challenge. Writing short stories requires Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and some help from Gregory Hines. We are the cat burglars of the business: in and out in a relatively short time, quietly dressed (not for us the grand gaudiness of 600 pages and a riff on our favorite kind of breakfast cereal) to accomplish something shocking—and lasting—without throwing around the furniture.
Flannery O’Connor (a reliable source when appreciating the short story) wrote that short stories deliver “the experience of surprise.” The surprise, I think, is that so few pages can contain so much, that what is taken to be a prism turns out to be not only a window but a door as well.
If you’re an American reader, you can love short stories the way other Americans love baseball; this is our game, people! We have more than two hundred years of know-how and knack, of creativity. Of the folksy and the hip, of traditional yarn-spinning and innovative flourishes. Of men and women, of war and loss and love, with a few ghosts and many roads not taken. And in all of that, you will find some of the funniest and most heartbreaking fiction, ever. (You could take a break right now and go find Parker’s “The Waltz” and Carver’s “Cathedral.”)
Short stories have no net. The writer cannot take a leisurely sixty pages to get things moving, or make a side trip onto a barely related subject, or slack off in the last forty pages. Everything is right now, right here, in the reader’s grasp and mind’s eye. The writer has twenty to thirty pages to entice, seduce, enter, and alter the reader. For me, the short story is the depth of a novel, the breadth of a poem, and, as you come to the last few paragraphs, the experience of surprise.
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