In Praise of the Short Story

General Thoughts / Wednesday, September 19th, 2018

This year, I finally found a podcast that I absolute love. I’m sorry to say this podcast has been around for more than 6 years and I only found it recently, but it’s amazing. Literary Disco has three very literary-minded people read books and talk about them. Yes, it’s that simple, and yes, it’s amazing.

I’ve committed myself to catching up on all the episodes since its inception, growing my reading list substantially in the process. I’ve read many of the books Literary Disco has discussed and written down numerous books they talk about in their conversations that are ancillary to the main topic. The podcasters love books as much as I do, which made this discovery very exciting.

In the episode I listened to today, the main topic of discussion was The Paris Review’s “Object Lessons”, an anthology of short stories (this was Episode 18, originally aired December 3, 2012). What I found interesting was that one of the trio was talking about how dissatisfied he was when it came to short stories, that they almost always had disappointing endings and they just weren’t a medium of literature that did anything for him.

I have to say, I disagree. At issue was the fact that this individual (and I’m purposely not saying his name because if you’re going to check out the podcast I want it to be because you’re interested in it, not because of who this person is) felt that short stories weren’t stories, and from what I understood, felt they most often were incomplete. To the latter point, I actually do agree. Short stories are short, and often don’t tell a full story.

One of the other podcasters made the comparison that short stories were sort of like art, that you look at it and have an interpretation of an artist’s moment in time. I think this is close, but I would say short stories are more like photographs, a literal snapshot in time. In my opinion, that’s what makes short stores great. They are snapshots in time, in a greater narrative that we aren’t necessarily meant to know.

In an earlier episode (Episode 7, originally aired June 18, 2012) the group reviewed John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book that I tracked down and read following the podcast. But, while I was waiting for the library to get a copy of the book, I found out that A Separate Peace is based on a short story written earlier by John Knowles, titled Phineas. I read the short story before I read the full-length novel and here’s what I took from it: while both were good, both were well written and earned the praise they’ve received over the years, I found that the magic of Phineas was tempered after I read A Separate Peace.

At the end of Phineas, I had questions, I wondered about the characters, I wanted more. This is often how people feel after short stories, and, at least for the short stories I’ve written, have led people to say on more than one occasion, “you should make this a book” and “what happened next.” This magical wondering makes me feel like I’ve been a part of something special, something singular, and something so fleeting it must be enjoyed, like a fond memory that one would capture in photography. The photo triggers the memory only a very few share with you, making it something exclusive. I believe the short story does the same.

As readers, we are a part of the story, we’re watching, we’re experiencing. In a novel length book, we are there for the whole journey. In short stories, we’re only there for a short time, for a short look, for a quick picture. The reading becomes special and I feel honored to be allowed to view that specific moment in a narrative that the author is choosing not to tell. Reading John Knowles short story, then following up with the novel, sort of cheapened the scarcity, the immediacy, and the magic of that brief and privileged moment.

And this is the ultimate point, I think (a point which another member of the podcast pointed out), if you read a short story with a novel experience in mind you will be disappointed and frustrated. If you go in knowing it’s going to be a special snapshot of a larger story, I think there’s a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment to be had, and in the end, a larger reading experience to be savored.

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