Short stories are not rivers to the novel's ocean; they are more like oceans seen from a distance. They are just meant to appear smaller. There are the same storms, the ripples, and the shores. Dip your feet in the waters and feel the chill or the warmth.
It would be unfair to state that Alice Munro's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature has given the short story a literary gravitas. This would be to ignore some truly fine works. However, it is most certainly interesting to see the craft through the eyes of one of its prominent practitioners.
There are some wonderful thoughts in an old interview Munro gave to The Paris Review. I'd like to understand some better.
On the novel:
"Katherine Mansfield said something in one of her letters like, Oh, I hope I write a novel, I hope I don’t die just leaving these bits and pieces. It’s very hard to wean yourself away from this bits-and-pieces feeling if all you’re leaving behind is scattered stories. I’m sure you could think of Chekhov and everything, but still."
The whole genre idea is changing. There are long short stories and short novels. There are novels written in verse and poetry that does not follow syntax. A work of epic proportions may span across generations and worlds. All these could be considered bits and pieces.
The problem is that the reader has been tuned to understand that a short story is something that has been left mid-way, or is a prelude to something bigger.
Note: "Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult."
"The New Yorker sent me nice notes though—penciled, informal messages. They never signed them. They weren’t terribly encouraging. I still remember one of them: The writing is very nice, but the theme is a bit overly familiar. It was, too. It was a romance between two aging people—an aging spinster who knows this is it for her when she’s proposed to by an aging farmer. I had a lot of aging spinsters in my stories. It was called “The Day the Asters Bloomed.” It was really awful. And I didn’t write this when I was seventeen; I was twenty-five. I wonder why I wrote about aging spinsters. I didn’t know any...I think I knew that at heart I was an aging spinster."
I am so intrigued by a theme being overly familiar. Who is it to? Besides, it is the treatment of the subject that often sets one writing apart from the rest. Over time, certain writers become overly familiar to their readers precisely because of the comfort such familiarity provides. There can be bad stories about esoteric subjects that even aliens would not be familiar with. The purpose of language and technique is to make an everyday cup of tea seem fresh and refreshing.
As regards writing about aging spinsters, or about anything, why are we drawn to certain subjects or people or things? When Munro, a married woman, says she was at heart an aging spinster it is possible that the first such characters had an impact on her. Aging spinsters have possibilities. There are so many stories you can tell by implication of non-attachment (as opposed to detachment).
I am curious, though, to know the company the people at the New Yorker kept that they were overly familiar with aging spinsters!
On stories as entertainment:
"I’ve been reading Muriel Sparks’s autobiography. She thinks, because she is a Christian, a Catholic, that God is the real author. And it behooves us not to try to take over that authority, not to try to write fiction that is about the meaning of life, that tries to grasp what only God can grasp. So one writes entertainments. I think this is what she says. I think I write stories sometimes that I intend as entertainments."
Looking for the meaning of life can be entertaining. And entertaining writing could spark off thoughts that the author might not have intended. In which case, would the reader be committing blasphemy by taking over god's work? Without getting into a metaphysical response, suffice to say that human evolution is about grasping the purpose of existence.
The short story just could make god's job look, well, short.
© Farzana Versey
Image: The Guardian