A Short Overview of the Short Story

by Alexander Steele

Like jazz and baseball, the short story can be claimed as an American invention, and a relatively new one at that. Though we might consider folk and fairy tales as a kind of precursor, the short story’s real debut is often thought to be the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection Twice-told Tales, which first appeared in 1837. The first novel, by contrast, is often thought to beMiguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which first appeared in 1604.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a favorable review of Hawthorne’s collection, in which he attempted to state the principles of a short story (which he then called the “prose tale”). Most fundamentally, Poe opined that the short story should have a more unified effect than a novel, an effect enhanced by the fact that the short story could be read in a single session. Poe wisely stated, “During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control.”

The soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.

This, in essence, is the beauty of a short story. The short story is brief enough so that the reader may be lured into the world of the story and not be released into the daylight of reality until the writer has told his tale. The reading experience becomes akin to the total immersion of watching a play or movie in a darkened theatre, and yet the experience allows the magical interplay of language and imagination that only prose offers. No other art form provides quite this mixture of bewitchment.

Thus, the only comprehensive definition you can make of a short story is that it be a work of prose fiction brief enough and unified enough so that it can and should be read in one continuous reading. As for captivating the reader’s soul, well, that depends upon the writer’s talent.

Further guidelines for the short story have been attempted. The story should: revolve around a single incident, contain few characters, utilize only one character’s point of view, not cover too long a time span, culminate in a surprising or revealing moment. These are useful guidelines, often employed, but many great short stories have broken them without losing their grip on the reader’s soul, and so let’s not consider any of these rules inviolable. As long as it’s short and unified, there are no boundaries on the writer’s creativity in telling the tale. In fact, the brevity allows writers even more latitude than a novel to tell their stories in a wildly innovative way. One of the odder stories in our book is Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” where the writer uses a stunt that might not work for three hundred pages but in short form it succeeds deliciously.

So if brevity is the main mark, how short should a short story be? Most short stories run from ten to twenty-five pages when placed in the pages of a book. But really the short story can run anywhere from one to fifty pages.

One page may seem too brief for a story to establish much emotional traction, but it can be done, and recently very short stories, often known as flash fiction, have become something of a trend. The story doesn’t even have to take a whole page. Accepting a barroom bet, Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story in a mere six words. Here’s the entire thing:

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

This is the typically spare Hemingway at his most spare, but damn if this isn’t a compelling story. Can you easily forget it? The shortest story in this book runs barely over a page and several of them run under ten pages, each providing the impact of a complete tale, the words achieving the perfect economy of a Yeats poem or a Chopin nocturne.

Once a story approaches fifty pages it’s a tossup whether to call it a short story or a novella. The label doesn’t really make much difference but, if a choice must be made, perhaps it comes down to whether the story does or doesn’t seek the concentrated effect of which Poe spoke. The longest story in our gallery, Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief,” pushes the limit of short story length, and yet it rushes forward with a sprinter’s momentum, making it almost impossible to stop anywhere before the finish line. And so it feels like a short story.

Not only did Poe define the short story in his review of Hawthorne, he took up the mantle himself (a very black mantle in his case) and penned a catalogue of short stories that brilliantly exemplify what he was talking about. Think back to the first time you experienced the thrillingly awful shock of “The Tale-Tell Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Masque of Red Death.” Has your soul ever been so completely at the mercy of a writer’s control? Other writers, such as Washington Irving and Mark Twain, soon followed suit. These early stories were frequently of a mysterious or macabre or whimsical nature, which makes sense because such extremes of imagination lend themselves especially well to the concentrated intensity of a short story.

As the 20th century neared, however, a new slant on the short story emerged, more tuned to the subtle nuances of everyday life. The leader of this movement is generally thought to be the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who published over two hundred short stories, the first appearing in 1882. The likes of Hawthorne’s haunted happenings and Twain’s far-jumping frogs were replaced by more mundane events that seemed to mirror the lives of the readers, and breathless plotting was replaced with a more life-like unfolding of incident. The short story proved an adept form for capturing these realistic glimpses of human existence. Not only did Chekhov control the reader’s soul, he made the reader give it a good search.

All kinds of other short story fads and fashions have come and gone since, each leaving memorable stories in their wake—pulp, sentimentalism, realism, post-realism, modernism, post-modernism, the New Yorker style, minimalism, meta-fiction, experimentalism, etc. However, in the broadest sense, most stories can trace their origin to either Hawthorne or Chekhov. Short stories that embrace page-turning plots, most notably those that fall into one of the genre camps—mystery, suspense, science fiction, horror, and let’s include magic realism—can be thought of as descendents of Hawthorne. Stories more inclined to caress characters drifting through everyday reality, which includes the bulk of literary fiction, are closer descendents of Chekhov.

Noted author Michael Chabon recently accused the contemporary literary short story (his own included) of having lost its “sense of mystery and ancestral tale.” He was saying that literary fiction has become too introspective, too uneventful, too Chekhovian for its own good. As a response, he edited a short story anthology containing new stories that hearkened back to the outright thrills and chills of Hawthorne, Poe, and company. Though we certainly don’t want to throw out Chekhov’s baby with the bathwater, Chabon makes a good point. Perhaps much of contemporary fiction could benefit from more reliance on good old-fashioned storytelling.

This essay originally appeared as the preface to Gotham Writers Workshop’s book Fiction Gallery, a collection of short stories co-edited by this author.