A Shout Out for the Short Story

It being October – the month of ghosts, ghouls and spectral apparitions – my original intention for this mini-blog was simply to point my trusting reader in the pleasant direction of two favoured fireside short stories in anticipation of Halloween. I’ll still do that, but they’ll now take the form of links to a reliable free to read site. Instead, can I beg but a single precious moment and draw your attention to an issue that perplexes and frustrates your humble narrator immensely. Namely, the prejudices, misconceptions and general ignorance’s that surround the point, purpose, skill and complexity of the shorter narrative.

Recently (yesterday, in fact), I made the mistake of reading a couple of blogs about the classic short story. Neither were particularly insightful and the writing styles (such as there were) spoke of common hackery – web copy akin to that of a hastily conceived church parish circular. But what especially annoyed me was the position each writer chose to take on the subject; a subject very close to my heart. 

Counting slowly to ten, I can, to some extent, overlook, “…the upside of reading classic short stories is that it won’t take as long as reading a classic book…” But to suggest that, “Short stories can be great for getting to know a famous author before you dive into their work head-first. Think of them as samples that will guide you into their larger body of work.” naturally requires some form of rebuke and rebuttal.

Just so we’re all clear, short stories are NOT mere samples of an author’s work. Neither are they, “a fun way to discover new – and old – authors alike.” Think of the works of O Henry, Damian Runyon, M.R. James to name but three masters of the craft. I could easily continue with Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy Parker – Saki (H.H. Munro). Add to these Twain, Dickens and Irving and it’s easy to see (even from this abbreviated list) that writers of considerable talent, skill and pedigree took their short story writing extremely seriously.

And well they should. The short story emerged as a recognised and respected literary genre during the 19th century. Great works appeared in newspapers and periodicals as well as collections in their own right. The Strand magazine famously published the myriad of adventures featuring that great detective, Sherlock Holmes; Dickens’ own publications – Household Words and All the Year Round – became a haven for the genre. Indeed, it was Christmas, 1866 that Dickens published one of his finest short stories – The Signal-Man – as part of his Mugby Junction collection. 

Now, I understand that we live in a society where more is often mistaken for ‘better’; that to consume as much as possible and to receive ‘value for money’ are the unifying scriptures of the age. But when it comes to the business of book-buying and literary satisfaction, the reader is short-changed if they presume a thicker book – a longer story – provides a better return on their modest investment. It doesn’t. 

The average novelist today (traditionally published as well as Indie) spews out banal tome after banal tome of such bewildering mediocrity that your derriere would rise up in violent protest if you were so inclined as to wipe your backside with their pages. Readers deserve better. So, my plea is simple:

  • STOP assuming that a novel offers better value for money over that of a novella or short story simply because it contains more pages.
  • STOP assuming that those who write novel-length stories are somehow more skilled or legitimate than those who prefer the shorter form. Nothing could be further from the truth.
  • STOP trivialising short story writers (and those who dwell in the world of the Novella) in general. Executed properly, both are wonderful genres, requiring the very highest levels of skill, and are certainly the price-point equal of the modern novel.

LINKS TO FREE ONLINE SHORT STORIES:

The Signal-Man by CHARLES DICKENS

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by WASHINGTON IRVING