The Rise and Rise of the Short Story

Reader Logo by Catherine McNamara

The most heart-warming news of the year for anyone who is crazy enough to have published a collection of short stories recently, is that the wonderful Alice Munro – a top player in a restricted field – has been awarded the Nobel Prize. The hearts of short story writers all over the globe skipped a beat. A short story writer – one of our own! – receives recognition for a lifetime of short stories!

But hang on, what’s going on here? For anyone trying to base a writing career on short stories, the publishing landscape can be very bleak. Sure, you can publish in print magazines and online reviews and build up your CV, but try telling that to a prospective agent or publisher. What will you be told? Hmmm. You can write but, er, short story collections don’t sell. Nobody will review them. No bookshop with stock them. Nobody buys them. Sorry bout that. How about coming back with a novel?

I wonder now, what if Alice Munro or Grace Paley or Katherine Mansfield or Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor or Amy Hempel had been told to go home and write a novel? If they’d been told: I like your work but could you bring me something longer?

Interestingly, I read yesterday while lost in navigation, that Kurt Vonnegut advises that a short story should begin as close to the end as possible. Which makes perfect sense, given that the end is the final crystallising point of the refined short story. And wise New Yorker contributor George Saunders says that not only does he dodge any theme that pushes forth, but that his best ending scenario is when the end creeps up to tap him on the shoulder.

Sublime! Not to mention Grace Paley, who claimed she ended a story somewhere in the middle.

And now back to the novel which many of us have been advised to turn in to our agents and publishers. Groan. The novel is different. A novel is a month-long trek in the Dolomites. Whereas a short story might be a Paris weekend. A pair of chunky walking boots versus a pair of elegant stilettos. A novel will surround you, comfort and challenge you, lead you along its trail. Where a short story is like a sassy night out...

Well, maybe it’s not quite like that.

Lately, I’ve been going back to The Paris Review interviews in my spare time. There is so much to learn about writing, about the writing patterns and preoccupations of the novelists and short story authors we love most, about their lives and views, about what charges them. These days there are a lot of quotes from Alice Munro about so I’ll leave a famous one about short story writing from Kurt Vonnegut:

Every character should want something, even if it is a glass of water.

Catherine McNamara’s short story collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ came out in September with Indigo Dreams Publishing UK 

Photo credit: Flocke

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