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The Cabinet, Not the House – What's Special about Short Stories

This article first appeared in emagplus, the online part of emagazine, the journal I co-edit for A Level English. I hope it might be of wider interest to an adult audience of fiction lovers. So here it is, by kind permission of EMC, who published it originally.

When you want to find out more about novels, poems or plays and how they work as genres, you might go straight to the work of literary critics and reviewers. Literary critics spend their lives analysing texts; they come up with interesting angles, they explore ways of describing elements of texts and theorise about what’s significant in them. So, for instance, one academic researching the novel might be most interested in broad movements, such as the Modernist novel, another might focus on elements of structure and style, or the changing use of voice and point of view, a third might be most interested in post-modern and contemporary re-envisionings of the form, a fourth might look at the historical and cultural forces behind changes in the genre. A fifth might be interested in narrative in general – not just short stories but narratives of all kinds, perhaps examining the archetypal structures or characters in any narrative text. There are big names in the literary critical world writing on each of the major genres – poetry, prose narrative and drama – and critics whose work is of seminal importance in these areas.

What’s interesting about the short story, however, is that, if you want to understand more about what short stories are like and how they work, you would almost certainly be better off going instead straight to short story writers themselves, rather than academics. The most fascinating and well-known accounts of the nature of the short story come from the great practitioners of the form – writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, George Saunders and others. There is very little academic criticism devoted to the form as a whole – as a simple Google search will reveal – whereas the writers themselves have a wealth of ideas that can help us understand what makes the short story different and special, suggesting ways of thinking about it that come from the direct experience of writing them.

Why might literary critics not be so interested in the short story as a genre? One reason may be that the short story is sometimes seen as the poor relation of its bigger, more impressive cousin, the novel. There is perhaps a certain snobbishness about the short story as a form – it’s sometimes seen in Creative Writing courses as an apprenticeship to novel writing, the kind of thing you leave behind once you’ve graduated to the more important and difficult proper activity of writing novels. Its connection to the oral forms of storytelling that we all know and practise, whether we define ourselves as literary people or not, perhaps turn it into less of a ‘high prestige’ literary form, for both reader and writer. Many writers who have written both – from Charles Dickens to F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway or more recently, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx or Colum McCann – are best known for their novels, even when their short stories could be argued to be of equal interest. When the short story is defined it’s often in relation to the novel – shorter than, more limited in scope, fewer characters, more intense – rather than as a unique genre with special qualities of its own. One wouldn’t try to compare drama with poetry, or poetry with fiction in this way, yet we happily do so with the short story.

One other reason why the short story might not have its own separate focus is that mostly short stories occupy much of the same territory as novels – the short story is a subset of a much bigger form, called narrative, which includes novels. Any way of characterising a novel can arguably apply to a short story too. If you try it out, you’ll see what I mean. Let’s take an idea like modernism. There are modernist novels – and short stories. How about genres – thriller, detective, romance, ghost, horror? There are novels in every genre and no particular genre – and short stories are similarly diverse. How about post-colonial fiction – yes, novels and short stories. What about ways of reading? Feminist, Marxist, historicist and so on. Yes, of course. Short stories can be read in the same way as novels.

So what, if anything does make short stories special? Let’s try out some claims that have often been made about the story .

What we can say for sure

· They are shorter than novels (and shorter than novellas – short novels).

· Their scope is more limited – often one central event, one emotion, one character through whose eyes the events are focalised.

· The reader experience is different from that of the novel. They are usually read in one sitting, so there’s an expectation of a single, satisfying experience, like watching a film, rather than reading a novel or a collection of poems over time.

· The reader experience results in a premium being placed on cohesion – a tight structure in which beginning ties up with end, leaving the reader in some way satisfied that it has ‘worked’ as a whole.

What is sometimes said, but we might want to question or qualify

· They’re harder to write because the reader is focusing intently on less, so every word counts. You can get away with more as a novelist, where baggy periods, or patches of less good writing or lower intensity are forgotten in the broader sweep of the whole work.

· There must be a moment of change, or drama or a moment of ‘epiphany’, where suddenly a character sees things differently as a result of the action in the story.

If one looks at some of the things writers themselves say about short stories, one can see these features being explored.

In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinet maker is to a house carpenter.

Annie Proulx

Here Proulx is suggesting something about size – a short story is a cabinet or small piece of furniture rather than a house. But she may also be suggesting more. A cabinet is appreciated for its artistry. All the craft is visible; the detail has to be perfect. The work of the house carpenter is vital to keep the house standing but it is more invisible, hidden in the structure of the building, perhaps not even appreciated as much for its beauty or skill.

What of the idea of limited scope? Two masters of the form have similar angles on this:

A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.

Edgar Allan Poe


Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Interestingly, Poe and Fitzgerald focus not on limited plot or numbers of characters but rather on a single emotional state or mood. While it might be tempting to imagine that short stories are more about a clever plot, a twist, a change, a surprise happening than about something as nebulous as an ‘emotion’ – an idea that seems to run counter to the idea of cohesion and completeness – one aspect of many short story writers’ musings about the form is resistance to the idea that it is reducible to a ‘what happens’ focus on plot. Like Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, in her important collection of essays, Mystery and Manners insists on a view of the story that firmly rejects such easy, simple explanation.

I feel that discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme is like trying to describe the expression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are. I’ve heard students say, ‘I’m very good with plot, but I can do a thing with character’, or ‘I have this theme but I don’t have a plot for it,’ and once I heard on say, ‘I’ve got the story but I don’t have any technique.’

[…] When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.

A story, for O’Connor is much more than its constituent elements. Her analogy of the face is an illuminating one but it leaves the student of literature in a difficult position, where analysis of how texts work in literary critical essays might seem to expect this kind of forensic uncovering of how elements such as plot, character and theme cohere to create a particular impact. O’Connors ideas might, however, offer some good ways both of thinking about what a short story is, and of how one might write about it in ways that genuinely recognise its special qualities, as part of an analytical approach.

First, it seems important, as a reader of short stories, to follow both Fitzgerald and O’Connor’s lead and allow oneself, in the first instance, to ‘experience’ a short story, without instantly leaping to analytical reflection or judgement. A short story is not a tract or essay, telling the reader what to think or arguing for a viewpoint (though strong political or social ideas may lie behind it, in some cases). So, one might ask oneself these kinds of questions, rather than ones under headings like ‘plot, character, theme’: what world did it take you into? What did it make you think and feel? What moods did it evoke? What, for you, were the feelings, or ideas at the crux of it? What pleasures did it offer you? What echoes and reverberations did it set up for you, in terms of other stories you have read, both in terms of style of telling or the experiences laid bare? Analytical reflection can then be built upon the foundations of this appreciation of the short story as a particular kind of experience, looking at how the writer has gone about their business, and why.

The short story writer is working in a genre that is one of the oldest and most intimately connected to what it means to be human. Stories have been told – orally, as folktales or legends, by parents to children, around camp fires, in villages and towns, on the carpet in schools, as anecdotes from one friend to another, written down and collected, re-told and revamped for different times and for new listeners or readers. As the critic, Terry Eagleton said ‘narrative is a disposition of the mind, a valid and perhaps ineradicable mode of human experience.’

Barbara Hardy, the literary critic, echoes this idea of narrative as our way of being in the world:

My argument is that narrative, like lyric or dance, is not to be regarded as an aesthetic invention used by artists to control, manipulate or order experience, but as a primary act of mind transferred to art from life.

Given the centrality of story to human experience and life, analysing how a short story writer has gone about their business will always include a mixture of thinking about the old and the new, the expected and the unexpected – how the writer has worked within a tradition that we all know, regardless of whether we read short stories as a genre or not – but also what they have done with that form that is unique to them, that makes use of conventions and traditions of storytelling to echo, adapt, extend or even flout them.

A writer like Angela Carter, for instance, in her re-workings of folk tales, fairy tales

and gothic horror stories, in The Bloody Chamber, explicitly talks about ‘putting new wine into old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.’ She wants to do something different, something shockingly new that challenges all that has come before, to make the reader re-envision the form itself as well as the conventional stories told within it. But even writers who are less obviously re-inventing old genres are drawing on all the stories they have ever read or heard and, whether consciously or not, finding their own place within a tradition. An enthusiastic short story reader cannot read the Canadian Nobel Prize winning short story writer Alice Munro without thinking of Chekhov, or Flannery O’Connor, or William Trevor – all of whom she will herself quote as influences on her work, among many, many others. Everything from Humpty Dumpty, to Cinderella, an endlessly told family anecdote to a favourite Carver or Hemingway short story shapes how writers write and readers read.

One final point about the short story. At the start of this article, I talked about the premium on cohesion and completeness but there is also something that runs strongly counter to this notion about short stories, in writers’ own thinking about what short stories should do. In fact, paradoxically, it seems that the short story must have an incompleteness about it to really do its work, leaving the reader to question, think and live in the story themselves and make it their own. Writer, David Foster Wallace, expresses this really well when he says,

Great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication-theorists sometimes call ‘exformation’, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.

Though every word in a short story counts, and it’s a complete, cohesive experience, the satisfaction that comes from that experience might involve more gaps, denials of information and uncertainties than many other forms of narrative.

Writer, Karen Russell draws a stronger parallel between short stories and poetry than short stories and novels, in this regard:

In short stories there’s more permission to be elliptical. You can have image-logic, or it’s almost like a poem in that you can come to a lot of meanings within a short space.

We can explore this idea further by looking at one of the shortest short stories ever written, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, (though this attribution has sometimes been questioned):

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.’

This story relies upon the ‘exformation’ that David Foster Wallace talks about. What makes it a story? Largely, the fact that readers have the kind of narrative ways of thinking and being that Terry Eagleton and Barbara Hardy talked about. Narrative is our default habit of mind, so the reader cannot read these six words without ‘writing’ the story of it for themselves, in their heads, if only in the form of narrative questions to themselves. Has the baby died? Is that why the shoes are being sold? Why have the shoes been sold, rather than kept as a precious reminder of the lost child, or just given away? Were the parents poor and in need of the money? Did they sell the shoes, giving up hopes of ever having another baby? Was it the parents who sold the shoes, or perhaps just the father, if the mother died in childbirth? Might there never have even been a baby – the shoes part of a woman’s desperate, and unfulfilled desire to bring up a child? Or was there a baby, who survived, but with a disability that made them unable to walk and use those lovely shoes that were bought for them? Am I right in feeling that there a family tragedy concealed behind these six words? The matter-of-factness of the telling might point to something else – it’s just an advert after all. If we did an experiment and gave these six words to multiple readers to talk about, would we discover that sadness and loss formed the basis of the majority of the ‘stories’ that people told themselves about them? I suspect they would, which has something to do with our strong emotional feelings about birth and babies, the wrongness of a baby’s shoes never having been worn, and the stories that might have led to this.

Where should this article end? Like the short story, it is short enough to read in a single sitting. Like the short story, it should have cohesion – it should satisfy the reader that something complete has happened. But perhaps, like the short story, it inevitably has an element of ‘exformation’ as well as information. That ‘exformation’ means that it can’t answer questions about what the short story is simply, by saying conclusively, ‘this is what a short story always can be relied on to do, or to be’. Questions remain. The questions – and the answers – that are most interesting are the ones that involve ideas that can’t be easily defined and pinned down. As Flannery O’Connor suggests, it’s the attempt to describe the expression on someone’s face and what makes it unique and fascinating, rather than simply listing its features, that is the most important – if most difficult – way of thinking about short stories and how they work.

NOTE: Since I wrote this piece and published it in emagazine, George Saunders has published a brilliant book on Chekhov's short stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. Had that been available at the time of writing, I would most certainly have drawn on it here.

My own collection of short stories, Kremlinology of Kisses, is available here:

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