In her next blog instalment, Elizabeth Lovatt considers the short story form
As the summer heatwave gears up again and we despair as the Amazon rainforest burns, MIR 16 continues to prepare for its Open The Box Party and the official launch of the magazine. There’s lots going on but we’re not quite ready to share it with you yet, so this felt like a good time to pause the behind-the-scenes and look at the final form in this year’s issue, one that will be familiar to any writer: the short story.
THE SHORT STORY IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE SHORT STORY
Speak to a publisher or a literary agent and they will tell you that short stories are a hard sell. Yet while there is some truth to this, last year short stories had a 50% increase in sales and new short story anthologies and online publications continue to appear. There are over 80 literary magazines in the UK alone that accept short stories. If you lurk on Twitter enough (like I do) it feels like more people than ever are writing short stories; there are competitions (of which MIROnline collate a handy list), new journals and writing groups popping up all over the place to celebrate short prose writing. There is #ShortStorySunday on Twitter and Jonathan Gibbs’s project, A Personal Anthology, which invites writers and readers from around the world to compile their own personal anthology of short stories — many of which you can read online for free. Some anthologies are centred around a theme, or others (like mine, for instance) are a collection of favourites they wish to share. In the last few years there have been brilliant short story collections from Eley Williams, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Daisy Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Yaa Gyasi, Julia Armfield, Ruby Cowling, Jenny Zhang and Joanna Walsh to name just a few. If you are a writer of short stories you should, of course, be reading them (there is no better way to learn) and we have never been so spoilt for choice.
THINGS ARE ONLY GETTING SHORTER
How short is a short story? There is flash fiction and micro fiction and Twitter fiction and short story competitions for 150 words or fewer or even just 27 words. Short stories are getting shorter, it’s the attention economy people tell us, we can’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. I want to know if I can read it in between the boring bits of the Netflix show I’m bingeing. This is not necessarily a bad thing and of course flash and micro-fiction long predates the internet, but what is interesting is our equating of brevity with online culture, that we believe there is a causal link between the two. Steven Millhause writing in the New York Times argues that short stories should be even shorter, “The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word.” (Incidentally, I came across this quote via the video essay ‘The Speed (and Stillness) of Being Online’ by Grace Lee, which challenges the notion that short = simple and long = complex).The short story as a single word makes me think of a photograph, a way of conveying everything in a single shot, one second captured which tells you everything you need to know about what came before it and what will come after. That short seemly strips away everything not necessary to leave you with a single, lasting impression.
So why write short stories? What can they do that a novel or a poem can’t do? Many writers have written about what the short story means and because I am lazy and life is short (ha) here is Ali Smith quoting some of those authors on what the short story can do (I’ve cut down the quotes, but you can read the full piece here):
Tzvetan Todorov says that the thing about a short story is that it’s so short it doesn’t allow us the time to forget that it’s only literature and not actually life.
Nadine Gordimer says short stories are about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark.
Elizabeth Bowen says the short story has the advantage over the novel of a special kind of concentration, and that it creates narrative every time absolutely on its own terms.
Eudora Welty says that short stories often problematise their own best interests and that this is what makes them interesting.
Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.
William Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like the flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives.
Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment long after the real, lived moment is dead.
Cynthia Ozick says that the difference between a short story and a novel is that the novel is a book whose journey, if it’s a good working novel, actually alters a reader, whereas a short story is more like the talismanic gift given to the protagonist of a fairy tale—something complete, powerful, whose power may yet not be understood, which can be held in the hands or tucked into the pocket and taken through the forest on the dark journey.
Grace Paley says that she has written only short stories in her life because art is too long and life is too short, and that short stories are, by nature, about life, and that life is itself always found in dialogue and argument.
Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.
TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ
The short story will never die because the short story can be anything, can do anything; in its limitations it is entirely free to express one second or all of human life. There is no place to hide in a short story, no room for wasted words. MIR 16 is yet further proof that the short story thrives. There are as many ways of writing short stories as there are authors and they have never been so accessible. And whether you are a writer or a reader, that is undeniably a thrilling and exciting prospect.