The Short Story

The short story shapes itself like a painting. There are layers of meaning, but we only have to look at the whole for the briefest of moments to understand all it has urgently to tell us.

The short story is a form that focuses itself around a single question or a moment of crisis. The very best examples force us to think differently and bring us to a point of no return in one reading, before setting us free, changed. They reach to the reader’s emotional centre. In this respect, they can be more like poetry than the novel. Maybe this is why some short story writers turn to poetry late in their writing lives.

This is what I know:

The best short stories start with an idea: The Swimmer by John Cheever has a middle aged man swim across the pools of his suburban landscape all the way back to his home. What happens on the way, the people he stops to speak to, the exhaustion he encounters, and his reaction when he finally gets to his end point, make the story.

They unravel the core of a character: Raymond Carver’s Cathedral has a blind man visit a sighted narrator and his wife. The reader watches the transformation of the sighted narrator through the course of one evening.

They bring us close to regret for lives lived badly or unlived: William Trevor’s A Day traces the life of an unhappy marriage, flipping back in time, but hinged in the ordinary tragic detail of the everyday.

They make us walk a little more carefully for the rest of the day: James Salter’s Last Night tells a story about three characters fated to blunder their chances. When morning comes, they face each other’s disappointments.

They make us breathe: Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party is filled with life. It is near as perfect as a story can be.

They defy form: The short story writer Alice Munro, when asked in The Atlantic Magazine if she’d ever consider writing a novel, said:

“I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel.”

Her story Walker Brothers Cowboy could (unusually) be a novel, one thinks, stretched out from its current form, intent upon the blur of the real world and the surreal cosmos as it seems. But it isn’t a novel. It is a story centred on a young girl moving through the world with her father who is a travelling salesman. Her moment of revelation comes when she realises that her father has a life beyond the family, away from her.

Lastly, the best short stories will not disappoint: Roberto Bolano’s Mexican Manifesto. The work of a master.

Barbara Cotter

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