Wednesday, 18 June 2014

About Shorts

Or How to Squeeze Literature into a Full Agenda

From childhood on most of us lead terribly busy lives and need to keep a close eye on time. Undoubtedly, our modern work ethics as well as lifestyle have a big share in it and almost succeed in barring the centuries old idea of “leisure” from our experience. Far too often our agendas are filled to the brim with whatever we believe indispensable to live our lives to the fullest. At best we manage to schedule a quick pleasure now and then, a short holiday every couple of months, but usually that’s it. Even people like me who love reading can find it difficult to spare a longer period to plunge into the imaginary world of a novel.

Every bibliophile knows how annoying it is to be torn out of an intriguing plot ever again because of phone calls, appointments and other duties that can’t wait. It can even spoil the whole pleasure of reading. Luckily, there aren’t just novels on the market. An equally good alternative for readers who can’t free much time at a stretch are short stories, a discovery of modern literature. At least until the seventeenth century short prose was of little importance because there was no real market for it. Of course there were fairy tales, legends, fables, anecdotes, pamphlets, and essays, but most writers didn’t see them as a means of literary expression yet.

One of the first to give short fiction more attention was Madame de Lafayette in seventeenth-century France, but it wasn’t before Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Prosper Mérimée in the early nineteenth century that it raised more general interest. Authors like Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens in the U.K. and Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the USA paved the way for short stories to become a literary genre. In German the classical authors Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Peter Hebel, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich von Kleist can be considered as pioneers of short fiction.

Thanks to the increasing number of periodical media (magazines, journals, etc) the new genre had by the second half of the nineteenth century conquered its firm place in literature and in the hearts of readers. Authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov developed the form to full perfection and are up to this day considered as the great masters of short story who set the standards for those who came after them. And in fact, the task of writing an entire story on just a few pages should not be underestimated. It really is a challenge since it requires particular skill to reduce everything to the essential and to leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. 

There are countless fiction writers who during their careers produced short stories, but there are only few whose fame is based on them rather than on their longer writings. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that short stories have lost much of their original appeal since they gradually disappear from all popular print media. At least that’s the case in the German-speaking world where I live. Somewhere I read that if you wish to bring out a shelf warmer, you should try a collection of short stories. Even the 2013 Nobel laureate in Literature, the Canadian Alice Munro, said in an interview that she hoped “the award would bring readership for the short story in general.”

I must admit that I too prefer novels because they feel more complete and allow me to really get absorbed in events and emotions that aren’t mine, but I also read short stories occasionally and thoroughly enjoy them. However, heavenly times could be lying ahead for short story and flash fiction writers since our world is becoming ever more fast-paced, since even the minority who adores reading has ever less time to indulge in this passion and since the attention span of average people seems to have shrunken to the length of an sms or twitter message. Or do those condensed stories that authors write require too much thinking? Who knows!

For A Short History of the Short Story see William Boyd’s article of 10 July 2006 in the online magazine called Prospect or consult Wikipedia.

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