November 16, 2020
As we are about halfway through a month dedicated to writing novels, I thought this would be a fine time to talk about short stories. My inability to chase trends aside, what prompts today’s topic is the latest winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Souvankham Thammavongsa for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. Thammavongsa’s win marks the fifth time a short story collection has won the top prize for Canadian fiction in its twenty-six years of existence. Accounting for the split winners in 2000, 18% of the winners are short story collections. Compare this to the Man Booker prize, which has expanded its eligibility to any longform fiction written in English and published in the UK. This prize has never been awarded to a short story collection. There was one short story collection added to the shortlist in 1980: written by Canada’s Alice Munro. I mention this to illustrate a few points. First, in the upper tiers of the literary world, the novel is put on a higher pedestal than the short story collection. Second, it might be said that Canada recognizes short stories compared to the wider literary world.
What is a short story?
Let’s start with what it isn’t. A miniature novel. A condensed novel. Part of a larger work. A short story has as much relation to a novel as a poem does. I stress this because there are many who dismiss the short story as a lesser novel, lacking character development and gripping plot twists.
My aim with this post is to encourage you to read or write short stories. For that reason, I will explore what makes a good short story using a few examples. While the history of the short story is as long as the history of oral storytelling, I will be focusing on the modern short story, although I won’t pass up the opportunity to recommend Bocaccio’s Decameron, an eclectic collection of short stories a group of friends amuse each other with to pass the time during the plague of 1348. For time’s sake, I am also restricting myself to the literary short story: genre fiction (including short stories) deserves its own post.
Short stories with lessons
Older short stories, like fables and fairy tales, existed primarily to teach a moral, or explain in simplified terms a larger cultural value. This form of storytelling has fallen out of favour, but not completely disappeared.
One of my favourite short stories is James Joyce’s “Araby”. This is one of those stories that has been foisted upon high-school students and hated mainly for its lack of plot and confusing ending, neither of which is accurate. The plot is simple and so efficient that it may be said to be non-existent. A boy (around teenager age) realizes that he is done playing childish games with his friends. He sets aside the “career of [his] play” because he has fallen in love with his friend’s sister. Seemingly their first meeting (at least in the story) is when she asks him if he is going to the bazaar. This becomes his obsession: the rest of this compact story follows his frustration as his trip to the bazaar is delayed and, when he finally gets to go, he lapses into a quixotic fantasy about he as a knight bringing the greatest jewel back to his love. However, he arrives late and many of the stalls are closed, and the bazaar is dull, dreary, and he leaves buying nothing. The final lines hit on the life lesson the story is meant to impart:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
Our narrator realizes that he has let himself be deceived, that he has abandoned reality in favour of fantasy, and that he put aside childish games for more childish play. He hates himself for it. This epiphany holds true today. How many times, in a world saturated by advertisements, have you had buyer’s remorse? How often have you bought into the idea of something only to find reality dull your pallet? What Joyce accomplishes in this story, in a few pages, is to bring you into the narrator’s mind as his obsession for his friend’s sister manifests in the tangible idea of going to the bazaar only for that idea to crush him. You are meant to experience the same rise and fall, and perhaps reflect on your own obsessions. “Araby” is not concerned with plot or character development (save for the final lines). There is only one conflict. The central characters don’t have names. If this story were any longer, it would start to fall apart. It is not the beginning of a novel. It is a quick insight into the obsessive mind of a boy entering puberty.
On a similar but lighter note is Italo Calvino’s “Mushrooms in the City”. Our eponymous character of the collection Marcovaldo finds a hidden patch of mushrooms on the side of the road. His joy over the discovery turns to apprehension as he worries that someone will take this away from him, that the gang of children or the street-cleaner will find his mushroom. But in the end, after learning that there ware more than he thought, he softens and informs the people waiting for the tram about the mushrooms. There is great joy as the people rush out with their baskets to pick mushrooms. The story then jumps forward in time to Marcovaldo and his wife in the hospital, after being poisoned by the mushrooms.
These windows into a fraction of life, with either a heavy realization or comic turn at the end, is what the short story excels at.
The beauty of a short story is that it is a unified work. We are immediately introduced to our central character, and follow them through a specific event or concern or desire. There are not many twists and turns, simply the development of a single idea and its resulting consequence.
The Canadian Blues
I’m generalizing a bit here, but Canadian short stories in the literary genre tend to have a specific flavour. This may or may not be due to the influence of our most prominent short story author, Alice Munro. I haven’t read much of her work (mea culpa), but those I have read reveal what I believe she is known for. Munro’s stories depict detailed accounts of the ordinary, but over the course of the story, a darker side is revealed. To call her stories bleak would be unfair, but the quietness of them, coupled with the introspection over the mundane leaves me with a very specific feeling which I can only call bleak. It’s not a bad thing though. I enjoy most of the stories I read, and love that sense of reflection they promote. Similar to “Araby”, many of Munro’s stories direct you to look below the surface; sometimes the characters will explicitly point this out, and sometimes they won’t.
Bronwen Wallace is another Canadian author that uses the mundane to explore a deep level of humanity. Her collection People You’d Trust Your Life To gives us insight into human connections on a level that novels cannot achieve. We don’t need to know her characters’ backstories, or what happens to them after the events of the stories. In a few pages, we get a sense of who they are and how they interact, and what makes Wallace’s stories worth reading beyond excellent writing is that the connections between her characters are so impactful that it seems as if we have been reading them for hundreds of pages, not five. Her stories, too, tend towards the darker side of life in the same meditative manner as Munro. I know two data points does not a trend make, but Canadian short stories seem to relish in our national identity as the cold north. Life can be harsh, but together we weather the storms, or fall.
Thammavongsa’s newest addition to the world of Canadian short story collections does not deviate from the path. The stories in How to Pronounce Knife follow the desires of a central character (ranging from an eight-year-old to a seventy-year-old) as they bump against the harsh world. Her characters are outsiders, typically because of their position of a Laos immigrant in Toronto, and most of the stories explore the struggle between their desire and their inability to access parts of their new world. Again, we have a collection of quiet and contemplative stories with characters far more developed than might be expected given the small page count.
My first recommendation is for everyone: read more short stories. If you want rich details and somber reflection, look no further than recent Canadian collections. But the world of short stories is varied. Thriller, horror, and sci-fi lend themselves wonderfully to the short story. As does magic realism or absurdism. It’s a low commitment, as short stories are meant to be read in a single sitting (I think that was according to Edgar Allen Poe.) So instead of “doomscrolling”, have a short story collection on on hand when you need a bit of a distraction.
My second recommendation is for writers. Don’t just see the short story as a stepping-stone to a novel. The short story is a perfect vehicle to explore new forms, genres, techniques. It is a way to delve into the art of writing. Writing a short story requires different muscles than writing a novel, but they are intertwined. If you want to improve your writing, the technical aspect of it, short stories are your best option this side of poetry.
Thanks for reading!