.Once upon a time, not so very long ago, short stories were all the rage, and newspaper stands were packed with journals equally packed with short stories. Nowadays (in the UK, at least), those sort of magazines have gone, and there isn’t a market for the short story, seen as the poor friendless unattractive cousin of ‘proper books’.
Yet I think there’s a lot to be said for them. Some writers write technically clever, and brilliant books – but curiously lacking in emotion or pleasure. Look at DH Lawrence – his books are full of suffering and pain, yet his short stories are joyous. ‘Sun’ is practically the only piece of literature to really describe how I feel about sunshine, and ‘You touched me’ is, I think, his best love story. James Joyce’s books are very clever, but none of them move me in the same way his collection of short stories, The Dubliners, did. It’s as if they wrote the books to instruct and inform, and the short stories out of pure pleasure.
And if you have an intense and charismatic figure, he’s best taken in small doses, like fine wine or good chocolate. Nearly all the Sherlock Holmes stories are short stories, and even in the four books, Holmes is only on stage half the time. I think Arthur Conan Doyle knew that such a strong character would fade, and perhaps irritate slightly, given too much exposure at once.
It’s easy to keep an atmosphere going over a short story. Not much happens in ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’ by MR James (known as the Master of the short ghost story) but the atmosphere of ‘something’ approaching is sustained in a way it could not be over a whole book. Edgar Allen Poe can keep us horrified for a few pages – it would be too exhausting to be horrified over 100.
Short stories often concentrate themselves over a short period time – a day, like Mrs Dalloway (I know it’s a book, but it’s so short it’s practically a long short story), or even an afternoon. Katherine Mansfield is the mistress of this, with her enchanting, yet often disturbing stories (I recommend The Garden Party or At the Bay).
A lot of authors use short stories to write something different from their usual fare – such as Dickens writing ‘The Signalman’ one of the very best ghost stories, or Stephan King taking a side step away from his genre to write ‘The Body’ or ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. It’s a chance to walk away from your usual persona, and try another one on for size.
Anne Perry (yes, I know I mention her a lot, but she’s my favourite living author) uses short stories to take minor characters from her books, and give them a story of their own – expanding and illuminating them in a way she would never have time or space to in the books.
So why not try one yourself? There’s lots of advantages. You never have to explain anything – a short story is a snap shot in time – there’s no need for any back story. You just drop into someone’s life, observe it for a while, then drop out again.
It’s a good way to advertise – Stephen King started off sending short stories to magazines, and if you can get one into an anthology, it opens up a much wider reading audience for you.
It’s a chance to try something new – always written sci-fi? Try a quick chick-lit short story. If you hate it, it’s very little time and effort wasted. If you love it – you’ve taken the first step.
It’s a great way to explore an idea you’re not sure will last a whole book. Start writing – if it keeps going, you’ve got a book, it it peters out, you’ve got a short story
And best of all, they’re quick. You get one done in an afternoon. If you type/write fast, you can get one done in your lunch hour (I have…). It’s a great way to dip a toe in for a few hours, to keep your muse amused for a while when you don’t have the time or energy to devote to a whole book.
And as a reader – I adore short stories. I don’t see them as the poor relation of books – I see them as a form of literature all on their own, and I love them.