The Art of the Short Story

I just finished The Model Millionaire, an anthology of Oscar Wilde short stories (and named after the story with the same name). In the back, there was also a modern short story, “Tiger, Tiger” by Simon  Van Booy.

It’s interesting to look at Wilde’s short stories and compare them to “Tiger, Tiger” and some other modern stories that I’ve read recently (including those submitted in my writers’ group).

Wilde’s stories tended to be rather straightforward. They told a story chronologically, made a point, and moved on. While the stories didn’t lack subtlety (and I’m sure someone who has studied Wilde in depth would point out how much subtlety there is), I would finish reading a story, be able to quickly draw my conclusions, and move on. I’m certain if I go back and read it again, I’ll pull more from it, but I basically feel as if I “got the gist” in my first read.

However, the more modern stories I’ve read (which tend to be read as more “literary”, which may be why they come across like this), seem to be asking the reader to do all the work. Some are told chronologically, some skip all over the place, and they both tell stories, but the telling (both in the information that is provided and the information that is almost obviously not included) seems to beg the reader to understand and get the author’s point.

The stories feel like they’re nothing but subtleties. A little bit like if I don’t get the point (or take the time to get the point), the authors are going to peer down at me from their place on high and think me unworthy. I’m probably reading too much into it, but it’s not really the feeling I want when I finish reading something.

(Note: I still enjoyed reading some of the stories that gave me this feeling, and some just left me with an”Well, I see” feeling, but in retrospect I got the feeling that required deeper analysis. And while I enjoy analyzing works, I also don’t want it to be a requirement of my enjoyment.)

I’m not sure I could say whether I enjoyed Wilde’s stories or the more modern ones better, but it’s a curious comparison.

It’s also interesting to look at short stories and compare them to novels. In an anthology I started reading recently, the editor who compiled the stories noted that ‘people don’t read short stories any more, which is a shame because she’s read so many short stories that offered so much more than many of the books she’s read. ‘

After reading the first in that anthology, I got to thinking about the difference between stories and novels (aside from length) and the purpose behind them. Obviously the genre makes a difference (as a romance short story is going to be very different from a literary short story)…

But how many short stories do you find outside of literary ones? If you’re a reader of short stories, then you know which magazines to read, and you subscribe and you get those short stories–whether it’s literary or in your genre. Or you pick up “This Year’s Best Short Stories” and read that. But rarely–unless you have a group of friends who read short stories–is someone just going to recommend a short story to you. But someone will recommend a good book they’ve read.

(Money, spending, and purchasing all have to do with the decline of the short story as well, I’m sure, but I’m not focusing on that here.)

People don’t really read short stories, and I think part of this is because they aren’t just for enjoyment. And while books also may not just be for enjoyment, their agenda is wrapped in so much enjoyable story that the agenda doesn’t feel heavy to bear and compact to tear apart. Or perhaps it does, but you can enjoy the story without tearing apart and understanding all the agenda.

Meanwhile, after reading the various short stories that I’ve read, I don’t feel like I’ve been told stories so much, as I’ve been asked to ponder some things (some of which I might not really care about exploring). The brunt force of the short story’s purpose is the agenda, so the surface enjoyment is so much less that I can see why the short story has fallen out of favor with society as a whole. In a busy world like today, you would think that the short story would be in favor, but if the story is focused not on a compact telling of a story/scene/etc but rather a pondering about X topic…then it’s not really going to be seen as an enjoyable past-time.

(Note: I know this doesn’t apply to all short stories or all readers, but just in general.)

(Also, this post was going to be about short stories but a very different focus, and then I just kind of…went elsewhere with it. So apologies if it’s a little…untethered.)

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