I was recently asked to judge a short story competition for a group of writers in York. Before handing out the prizes I was asked to say a little about ‘what made a short story.’ It was a question that got me thinking, and I thought I would set down my thoughts on the subject for this blog. In this blog article I am going to use two short stories- by JD Salinger and Franz Kafka- to illustrate my point. Next time I will use a sci-fi collection by JG Ballard to show what, at their greatest, short stories can achieve.
Over the years I’ve got to know long-form prose- that is, the novel, as a way of answering a question. My background was in psychology, so I’m used to thinking of projects as a way to test out a hypothesis. As a trainee psychologist I learnt to formulate a hypothesis and then test it by running an experiment. My career in psychology gradually blended into one as a creative writer, and it’s only looking back now that I can see that I have gradually developed the idea that long-form prose uses the methodology of creative writing to answer a question. In fact, during my PhD in creative writing I was explicitly taught to see the novel writing as the methodology to answer a research question.
That leaves us with the question of what the purpose of short form prose is? I read the most successful short stories- and I’m thinking here of JD Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish, or Kafka’s short stories, and I notice that at its best the short story often serves a distinct purpose. They ask a question.
Take ‘A Perfect Day For A Bananafish’. In it, a young woman, Muriel, who is described as ‘a girl who for the ringing of a phone dripped exactly nothing,’ has recently married a man who seems to be suffering the effects of fighting in a war. Muriel, who apparently ‘looked as if her phone had been ringing continually since she reached puberty,’ seems alienated from him. In contrast, at a trip to the beach, Seymour bonds with a young child on the beach when they wonder about the fate of a Banana fish. Where Seymour felt distant from his wife and her mother, with this child he sees a clarity and an integrity about her and this has a profound effect on him, as he ends the novel shooting himself. We are left with questions. What exactly has Seymour realised? Knowing Salinger, it is something to do with adults, and their ‘phoniness’. Either way, the story lives on in us as we try to address the questions it asks.
There is little room in a short story to fully express a character, and offer the reader the many layers of complexity that we, as people have. There is little room, as well, to offer a full plot, and to use these devises to pose and answer a question. The self-contained world of a novel gives us the space for such resolve. But what we can do, with the short story, is introduce an idea to the reader. Get them thinking. Ask them a question. Have a read of Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor’. It’s a story about a young doctor who is sent out in the night to address a series of surreal situations. Kafka concludes the story with the line “A false ring of the night bell, once answered — it can never be made right.’ For my money, Kafka was one of the great short story writers, and in that piece he used the short story to make a suggestion to the reader. A suggestion in fact that is so resonant, that it can be interpreted as a philosophical point. Other short story writers I admire, such as Truman Capote, offer propositions, suggestions, or even critiques with the short story that are sharp, humorous, glamorous even.
So I suggest that we see the short story as a way to offer a proposition. They offer you a great chance to present an idea. Surely there are few better ways to tantalise the reader?
Guy Mankowski, OCA Tutor.
Featured Image: Helen Rosemier