“I deeply hate short story books – lousy trash bags full of failed novels from writers too lazy to carry their offspring to term.” This was Frankie Gaffney’s introduction to his review of June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker, which he later praised, but I can’t help but think that some novelists should end their limp works. Modern novelists remind me of unsavory farmers who injected 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 have 41 novels already, which would be quite a bit.
The news is on a huge upward trajectory, but attitudes persist that collections cannot be as successful as novels. To be fair, most of these prehistoric views emanate from London rather than Ireland or the United States. After all, it was us Irish who exported the news to the United States in the first place, and that’s our biggest cultural legacy – next to the Irish bar, of course.
It’s ironic that the title “short story writer” is so long for such a shorthand profession. Why not a shorteur or a shortist? If any news is Mary Lavin’s “arrow in flight”, it’s an arrow landing in your chest. If this is William Trevor’s “art of the glimpse”, it is a glimpse imbued with a strong weltanschauung. For those who lightly call it a “snapshot”, it is a soul scan. 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 oversized short stories. If a short story can be compared to a single from a blockbuster album, novels are like those rambling, self-indulgent concept albums from the 1970s. How many of us honestly come back to re-read an entire novel? I know I only come back to the “good bits”. The British editors would have you believe that the short story is a preliminary training ground for the novel, but if you ask me if I intend to write a novel, you might as well ask me to write some poetry. All scriptures are words, but the similarity ends there. Short story writers have an infinitely more creative mind 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 a line:
A poem; flash fiction; a short story; a new one; a novel.
There, right in the center, is the new one, the perfect bridge between all forms.
It is only natural that novelists are jealous of our perceived “laziness” and our ability to adapt our life to our profession. Look at Dan Brown, who recently claimed his plan for success was to start writing at 4 a.m. I said to him: “Are you crazy? I don’t get up until eight and my job will be all the better. Let me tell you, it takes more mental energy to laser-write a short story than one of those long-winded novels that spill over our shelves.
The short 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 concerned with word count that they forget to make individual words count. Oscar Wilde understood that it is never good to start from a place of self-imposition, 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 question of length of form; it is the length of the thought behind the form. As Seán O’Faoláin said: “Stories, like whiskey, have to be able to mature in the cask. “
The hardest form
News writers also have the advantage of reaching a wider readership through news anthologies. Where are the anthologies of novels? 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 news. As they know each other, they are mainly invited to contribute because of their “big name”.
William Faulkner wrote: “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds out that he cannot, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing that, it was only then that he embarked on writing novels. I admire the honesty of novelist David Park, who said of his first short story collection: “I secretly thought it would be easier than writing a novel, but when I started the transition was surprisingly hard. The truth is, the short story is a highly skilled form of prose coveted by many, performed by few.
I’ve always liked the short story even before I published my first one in 1997. Maybe it feels even more current now, because it fits the modern realization that small is better, like in microeconomics, micromanagement. , microgenetics. Let’s incorporate another term – microliterature – big impact, small structure, and finally let the novel withdraw 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 dissertation and was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.