People who read Thoughts from Botswana know that I am a big fan of the short story and think that most of what THEY have to say about them is wrong. It is a bit like the situation with candy floss (cotton candy for you Americans). In Botswana, candy floss is only sold at the circus and the circus only comes around once a year. This could lead some people to believe that since people hardly ever buy candy floss there must be no market for it and, therefore, no need to produce piles of the stuff and stock it in shops. This is crazy, of course. There are people, people who find having teeth after the age of 33 to be a whimsical notion, who would buy candy floss every day if only given the chance. This is the very thing THEY say about short stories and it just does not make sense.
Yesterday a friend sent me an essay from the New Yorker about the short story. I hardly ever go to the New Yorker web site. It could be my slow dial-up connection or a fear by The New Yorker website to get inside my chaotic computer, but in the time it takes to download a page from that website I could cook a seven course meal and serve it to a party of eight. So I’m happy when people send me things from the New Yorker, and this time even more so since the article was singing the praises of the short story.
It is a brilliant article entitled ‘The Ambition of the Short Story’ by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser. He writes in the article about how the big showy, take-up-all-of-the-room novel squeezes the short story into a dark corner. But he warns, “The novel is exhaustive by nature; but the world is inexhaustible; therefore the novel, that Faustian striver, can never attain its desire. The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.” That forced selectiveness is what Millhauser believes defines the short story.
“I imagine the short story harboring a wish. I imagine the short story saying to the novel: You can have everything — everything — all I ask is a single grain of sand. The novel, with a careless shrug, a shrug both cheerful and contemptuous, grants the wish.
But that grain of sand is the story’s way out. That grain of sand is the story’s salvation.”
That grain of sand holds all of the stories within it, something the novel has no time to discover. Millhauser says, “… if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.”
Short story lovers know that the art of writing a good one is curtailing the words. This is why flash fiction is such a unique and special aspect of writing. The economy of words forces blinding clarity. A good flash fiction story is often so sharp you don’t recover from it. Years ago I read a story that was only 200 words about an evil child on a boat. It is still tickling my brain in the odd moment.
Millhauser ends with, “The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar.”
Yeah for the humble short story.