The Long of the Short Story

As innocuous as it may seem, given the impending pressure of technology and the diminishing amount of personal time, the short story may be our best choice of literature. In just about 30 minutes, one short story can provide the necessary time away from screens and offer you the meditation you are searching for.

Years ago, short stories were the bread and butter of magazines. On average, most had four or five within their pages – so you always had something to read. Collier's. Harper's. The Saturday Evening Post. Even Ladies' Home Journal were a resource for readers and the laboratory for budding writers. However, once television came into the picture,  these magazines disappeared pushing the best writers into novels.

In its simplest form, a good short story should provide almost everything you need to know about an unknown author. First and foremost, short stories best establish the voice of the writer. Take into account, the short stories of Dorothy Parker. When she was not knocking them down at the Algonquin Round Table, she was publishing small personal works that read like one-act plays ("A Telephone Call - A Terrible Day Tomorrow") runs the gamut of internal dialogue. While technology changes here, the arc of emotions stays the same.

If you can be amazed at the first line of a novel you pick up from the shelf, then the short story cuts an even quicker path from your brain to your heart. Like film, a good short story follows a general narrative arc trading most of its plot machinations for the establishment of mood. Truman Capote, a master of the short story, immediately creates a time and place, and then much like a director brings characters in to add color. The fantastic Flannery O'Connor immediately sets the mood only to then turn it on its ear. 

The subversion of normal, everyday life may be the greatest facet of the short story. Novels are out to create entire worlds. Reading Haruki Murakami makes you realize just how far away the other side of the world truly is. However, Shirley Jackson presents a situation that could happen anytime and anywhere. In her story "The Witch," we take a simple train ride. She as the author has the same wandering eye for action and detail we would. As we take in the mannerisms of the anonymous characters in our surroundings, our discomfort often leads to the imbuement of dread and horror. O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" depends even further on this anonymity as the characters are nameless leading us to feel we could be reading an allegory or hidden fable.

Kurt Vonnegut was a master of the short story. He viewed this period of writing as his "graduate school." While working with editors, Vonnegut learned from submitting his works to nearly every publication out there. His best editors would not only accept his works, but correspond with a growing list of corrections, suggestions and ideas. Through these critiques, Vonnegut learned to be a concise, artful storyteller. As he narrated many of his tales, it was not only his confiding in you the most necessary details and mechanics of the story – but leaving you with a story in your hands worthy of retelling.

The short story (unlike the novel) is ideal for revisiting. Much like telling a joke (which is just as artful,) the short story you read becomes yours upon completion. Novels are largely episodic. Their narrative threads are entangled into a dense web whether you are investing your time into learning the four different names for each character in Tolstoy or following the misadventures of a lonely waif roaming a Dickensian world. However, the novel seems to be everywhere today. Moreover, many of the series we binge on in this era of Peak TV carry at least four separate storylines at once like a novel as well. However, after you watch these, you are limited as to whom you can tell about it. Even further, some of those friends who share your show may not be as far or either have surpassed you.

The short story is not as limiting. My favorite short story of all time is Ernest Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber." I have easily read it no less than 20 times and each reading offers me a slightly different interpretation. It has action that is as clear as a bell. However, read the story and then pass it to a friend to see how it changes in their hands.Furthermore, tales like Philip K. Dick's "Beyond Lies The Wub" and J.D.Salinger's "Franny" feature endings that resonate long after you finish. Many short stories that give that thought-provoking ending, can be easily reread where you, like a detective, look for the clues you may have missed. Now, get lost in a novel and you may back up a chapter to hopefully reboard that train of thought.

Perhaps for 2019, we should resolve to read more of these short stories. These are your best introduction to a new author and can easily be read without distraction. So shift that novel you have been struggling to find the time to complete (weekends are made for novels!), and pick up a collection of stories where you can end it in time for bed and then regale everyone with your tale the next day.

Mik Davis is the record store manager at T- BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor. Davis came to the Hub City in 1987 to attend Southern Miss, earning a degree in American Studies. His favorite short story of all time is Ernest Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber.”