In Praise of the Short Story

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Alison Isaac

Staff Writer

Alison Isaac is a writer and teacher from Toronto, Canada, with roots abroad and interests everywhere. She currently lives, writes, and teaches in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Find her all over the Internet, @alisonisaac.

I attempted to read Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude twice before the successful third try. It was tough, but around the midway mark I could see why it was heralded as a masterpiece by so many. Toni Morrison’s Beloved was another difficult but satisfying read, worthy of one’s time and effort, although I would never describe it as “enjoyable.” In both cases, I fought through the novel because I felt like I should. The main goal, especially with Beloved, was simply to get to the end so I could say that I finished it.

Of course, not all novels are arduous. There are many (prize-winning and “listed”) that I’ve found pleasure in reading. However, while there are novels that I genuinely enjoyed, the form that I always come back to, the form that I most enjoy reading, is the short story.

I just hate that it’s so underappreciated.

Gran-Union-CoverThe short story plays a supporting role in our literary world. It’s the sidekick, the little sister, the novel’s shadow. I’ve read and heard people speak of the short story as “practice” for a “full-length work,” as if short fiction is inherently incomplete and the novel somehow isn’t.

Sure, there are awards for the short story, but nothing on the level of those for the novel. Maybe that’s fair because of the effort and time commitment it takes to finish a novel. Imagine writing a story of a zillion pages and in the end, have it go nowhere. I understand why we would want to reward writers who put in all that work, but from a reader’s perspective, the short story is just as worthy of appreciation as the novel.

Maybe short stories are undervalued because we mistakenly believe that they are easy to write and to understand. People (non-writers, I can only assume) believe a short story can be whipped up with little effort. But have you ever tried to tell someone a juicy story in a voicenote? Before you know it, you’ve been rambling for 5 minutes and still haven’t gotten to the point. Keeping the story concise is difficult because you need to decide what’s truly essential to the (re)telling. There is no time for a slow burn. You need to get to the heart of the matter quickly, and as artfully as possible.

Perhaps we also subconsciously associate the short story with the oral tradition of storytelling, which we in turn associate with children because that’s the audience we often see in contemporary settings. These stories need to be short and simple because their target audience is not at a point in human development where they can endure anything long and complex.

But isn’t short and sweet a good thing?

One reason I love short stories is because they are generally more accessible. They are great for reluctant readers and slow readers, the “I should read more” readers, language learners and anyone intimidated by books. You don’t need to spend half your life fighting through a short story to able to say you’ve finished one.  Short fiction can provide you with a snapshot of life that leaves you contemplating it for longer than it took you to read it.

After reading some incredibly short stories by Julio Cortázar, I was inspired to start looking at my life more deeply. I sometimes wonder: If I were writing this, what would be the highlight here? What’s the point? Other times it’s: No reader would ever believe this! I started seeing my life as a series of small moments, which made me realize that there is always something happening. I can now appreciate even the slowest moving of times and the briefest interactions. I’m able to sit in each moment and view it as an experience worth remembering and reflecting on.

While “masterpiece” may quickly roll off tongues when speaking about a novel,  short stories can be just as insightful, thoughtful and clever. Short fiction is diverse, and complexity isn’t relegated to the novel alone. Short, compelling masterpieces exist.