Departments

Short stories

There are too many short stories in the world. For all x, where x is heartbreaking or horrifying, mystifying or magnificent, pitiful or precious, agonizing or astonishing – some short story already satisfies it perfectly.

There is always room for another novel. Novels are too long for perfection. All novels do something wrong, leave some promise unfulfilled. There is always room in the gaps. The novel is fractal; from the right perspective we could see every novel growing out of another – see Don Quijote as the Mandelbrot set, dark among halos.

More obviously, there is always room for another movie. I suspect good directors become so by watching bad movies. Every bad movie has one good character, one good scene, one good shot, one good line. Watch enough of them and these scattered goods add up to the shadow of a great but unmade movie.

But short stories can be perfect. Pry open the novelist and you find a frustrated reader of novels; pry open the director and you find a frustrated watcher of movies. But pry open a short story writer and you find delight and devotion. This is strange. Perfection is so high and so cold a thing; it should quell and silence us, it should make us prefer some open field. What could inspire us to imitate what we cannot rival?

(There is of course an analogy in music – old Bach is perfect, yet inspires composers – but that is only a parallel mystery.)

The point of fiction is its process. No work of fiction worth writing is fully planned. Not that fiction must be unplanned or shapeless; only that, for the writer, fiction is as much discovery as design – a revelation that may be determined, but cannot be predicted.

Imagine a pantograph mounted to a drafting table. Some points are fixed, some points are free. As the draftsman moves the arms the fixed points determine, as translated by the configuration of the machine, the shape traced out by the free points.

We only see the shape traced out when the drawing is done; but every work of fiction starts with something fixed and something free. Fiction is always experiment. The writer fixes certain points. Given the machine that the writer’s knowledge and sympathy are, what shape will be traced?

In the novel the apparatus is somewhat flexible. Time and tedium, research and tendency, blur the resulting image. But in the short story the apparatus is rigid and quick. The shape is distinct. For the writer, the short story is an experiment; for the reader, the short story is a demonstration.

If the point of fiction were for us to tell about the world – to put on masks and do impersonations, to manipulate puppets and cast our voices into their mouths – then fiction would not be worth writing. Essays and treatises can tell for us more easily, completely and comprehensibly.

We waste our powers when we exercise them only in being ourselves. To observe is to imitate; to sympathize is to become. We all do this; we simply call it knowing a person – knowing how they look at things, knowing what they would say, how they would say it. This is a basic human faculty, something we take pleasure in doing and cultivating for its own sake. We build music on hearing, art on seeing; we build fiction on knowing.