This should begin with a disclaimer: I adore short stories. I’d pick a Joyce Carol Oates or Coover short over long form any day. They glut and gut at the same time; “concentrate without clotting” and bring the weight of something so much larger to a flimsy ten page read. Reading a short, there’s always the sense that something creeps just beyond the pages and something vital being pressed a gauzy closeness to the narrative skin.
They aren’t just remarkable in their precision – less words, more punch – they pose an entirely different motive than that of the novel. They don’t instruct, they don’t come fixed with trimmed moral tales or explicit meaning. Instead, they flirt with our moral boundaries. They, as The Guardian suggests, “invite us to smoke and also to know that we shouldn’t smoke, because it’s lethal.” They are rich with idiosyncrasies; they complicate and construct rather than deconstruct, while maintaining a minimalistic form.
The short story is the perfect package for these moral experiments. They offer just enough space to poke and prod ideas and, despite their brevity, can be the most difficult literary form to digest. Their punch gains strength by hitting close to home and stripping away a reader’s preconceived notions about the orbital centers of human life: sex and death. Our “comings and goings” you could say.
Short story writer Alice Munro, when asked why sex and death were such strong themes in her writing, said, “why wouldn’t it be? It’s all that matters.” Munro is a single testimony to a general set of guidelines short story writers tend to adhere to. Oate’s stories – like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” or “Mastiff” all circle around the attainment of sex and intimate fulfillment. They bat their eyelashes at what a reader anticipates and never quite gets – the climax often working as a deflation, a detour from satisfaction. The same can be said of one of my favorite shorts “The Other Place” by Mary Gatiskill, which gets under a reader’s skin in its address of love and want in tandem with hurt and pain, creating powerful opposites in harmony.
Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
Stories by Flannery O’Connor (i.e. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) or T.C. Boyl’e’s “Chicxulub” gives us another imperative existential prescription in their focus on death. In the prior, a pressing mortality reconstructs the meaning of life. In the latter, the diminutive weight of a single interchangeable death is held against the monstrosity of the historic asteroid decimating the Yucatan Peninsula.
Stories II by T.C. Boyle
Short stories are powerful in their ability to rip us from comfort with swiftness and packed language, quiet egos and stir contemplation. They strip bare the most vexing and temping pieces of human life, morality and sex respectively, and leave us unsettled. They don’t answer a question, settle a truth, or create succinct rules for managing the chaos in life. Instead, they revel in this helplessness and, through their own structure and stability, remind us that we are never fully in control.
Featured image courtesy of Giphy.