“I deeply detest short-story collections – grotty binbags stuffed with the aborted novels of writers too lazy to bring their progeny to full term.” That was Frankie Gaffney’s intro to his review of June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker, which he went on to praise, but I can’t help thinking some novelists should put an end to their flabby oeuvres. Modern novelists remind me of disreputable farmers injecting their cows with growth hormones to earn a few extra euros. By Frankie’s assessment, if I had been assiduous enough to gestate my short stories, I’d have 41 novels by now, which would be some going.
The short story is on a huge upwards trajectory, yet attitudes persist that collections can’t be as successful as novels. To be fair, most of those prehistoric views emanate from London rather than Ireland or the US. After all, it was we Irish who exported the short story to the US in the first place, and it’s our biggest cultural legacy – next to the Irish bar, of course.
It’s ironic that the title “short-story writer” is so long for such an abbreviated craft. Why not a shorteur or shortist? If a short story is Mary Lavin’s “arrow in flight”, it’s an arrow that lands in your chest. If it’s William Trevor’s “art of the glimpse”, it’s a glimpse infused with a strong weltanschauung. For the people who lightly call it a “snapshot”, it’s a scan of the soul. For me, writing a short story is like exposing the human heart with a scalpel, sometimes with deft incisions, sometimes with brutal butchery.
Many novels are no more than overextended short stories. If a short story can be compared to a single within a greatest-hits album, novels are like those rambling, self-indulgent concept albums from the 1970s. How many of us honestly go back to re-read a whole novel? I know I only ever go back to “the good bits”. British publishers would have you believe the short story is a preliminary training ground for the novel, but if you ask me if I’m planning to write a novel, you might as well ask me to write poetry. All writing is words, but the similarity ends there. Short-story writers have an infinitely more creative mind than novelists as we have to generate many more worlds. We are also blessed, much like poets, with a killer instinct for crystallised truth.
I see the different writing forms as linked variations on a line:
A poem; flash fiction; a short story; a novella; a novel.
There, right in the centre, is the short story, the perfect bridge between all forms.
It’s only natural that novelists are jealous of our perceived “laziness” and our ability to fit our lives around our craft. Look at Dan Brown, who recently claimed that his blueprint for success was to start writing at 4am. To him I say, “Are you nuts? I’m not getting up till eight and my work will be all the better for it.” Let me tell you, it takes more mental energy to write a laser-like short story than one of those prolix novels that bulge out on our bookshelves.
The short form is a blessing for both writer and reader. As a writer, I love instant gratification and ratification. Sometimes I think novelists are so preoccupied by word count, they forget to make the individual words count. Oscar Wilde understood that it’s never good to start from a place of self-imposition, noting that Henry James “writes fiction as if it were a painful duty”. In comparison, a short story is light on its feet, ludic, pithy and witty. Great art is not about length of form; it’s about length of thought behind the form. As Seán O’Faoláin said: “Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.”
The hardest form
Short-story writers also have the advantage of reaching a larger readership through short-story anthologies. Where are the novel anthologies? They’d be bigger than the phone book. Novelists are more than happy to appear in our anthologies, although that’s no guarantee they can write a good short story. As they know themselves, they’re mainly invited to contribute because of their “big name”.
William Faulkner wrote: “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” I admire the honesty of novelist David Park, who said of his first short story collection: “I secretly thought it would be easier than writing a novel, but when I started, the transition was surprisingly difficult.” The truth is that the short story is a highly skilled prose form coveted by many, achieved by few.
I've always loved the short story even before my first was published in 1997. Perhaps it seems even more of the moment now, as it fits in with the modern realisation that small is better, as in microeconomics, micromanagement, microgenetics. Let's include another term – microliterature – big in impact, small in structure, and let the novel finally step down and give the short story its rightful place.
Rosemary Jenkinson's third collection of short stories, Catholic Boy, is published by Doire Press. Bomb Dust appears in Belfast Stories, also by Doire, which was launched on June 9th in the Crescent, Belfast. She recently received a major individual artist award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a memoir and has been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize