Friday, February 03, 2006

Short Stories and Sound Bites

As an avid reader and writer of short stories, I have puzzled over and lamented the apparent decline in popularity of this literary form. Surely, I have often thought, short stories are a perfect match for the modern world. If we lack time and possess limited attention spans, if we’ve grown acclimatised to fast moving media and ever briefer sound bites, shouldn’t our literary tastes run to short stories rather than vast, sprawling novels? Apparently not. We’re told that short stories don’t sell, and bestselling novels grow ever longer. Perhaps, I think hopefully, it’s not that short stories don’t sell, but rather that publishers think they don’t sell and therefore don’t publish or promote them with the vigour that would enable them to rival novels in the marketplace. Then again, perhaps not.

In an article on short stories titled “Brief Encounters,” William Boyd takes a tack that upends my argument. He suggests that the short story is undergoing something of a revival, and not because it suits a sound bite culture but because it is antithetical to it:

However, I feel that there may be a different reason why readers of the short story have never really gone away. And this has nothing to do with its length. The well-written short story is not suited to the soundbite culture: it's too dense, its effects are too complex for easy digestion. If the zeitgeist is influencing this taste then it may be a sign that we are coming to prefer our art in highly concentrated form. Like a multivitamin pill, a good short story can provide a compressed blast of discerning, intellectual pleasure, one no less intense than that delivered by a novel, despite the shorter duration of its consumption. To read a short story like Joyce's "The Dead", Chekhov's "In the Ravine" or Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place", is to be confronted by a fully achieved, complex work of art, either profound or disturbing or darkly comic or moving. The fact that it takes 15 minutes to read is neither here nor there: the potency is manifest and emphatic. Perhaps that's what we are looking for, as readers, more and more these days - a sort of aesthetic daisycutter bomb of a reading experience that does its work with ruthless brevity and concentrated dispatch.

I have to concede that the argument I articulated above is grounded more in wistful hope than in sound analysis, and I find Boyd’s contrary view utterly convincing. Indeed, he has put his finger on exactly what it is that I love about good short stories: “a compressed blast of discerning, intellectual pleasure” that I can experience in the space of a subway ride on my way to work in the morning.

Boyd’s article was published more than a year ago in the Guardian, but I only just discovered it this morning thanks to a link provided on Catch & Release. At the centre of the piece is a typology of short stories that Boyd has created:

I decided it might be worth trying to categorise the short story in a bit more detail, to try to classify its multifarious forms. Looking at collections by other writers, I gradually came to the conclusion that there are seven types of short story, and that within these seven categories almost every kind of short story can be accounted for. Some of them will overlap, or one category will borrow from a seemingly unrelated type, but these denominations seem, by and large, to subsume all the species of the genus. In this diversity we may begin to see what short stories have in common.

Boyd’s seven categories of stories are unconventional and thought-provoking ones that, despite the count of seven, bear no relation to the seven basic plots that one so often hears discussed. They're well worth a look. You can find the article here, and the comments on Catch & Release that alerted me to its existence here.

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