Cut a long story short
I still feel guilty admitting it, but it was my curiosity into how John Lennon met his end that got me into short stories. At school I chose to eschew Lord of the Rings or Lord of the Flies – whichever one of the Lords they were offering up at GCSE – to opt instead for J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. My primary reason for this choice had been morbid intrigue, but a few days into hanging out with Holden Caulfield and this soon faded into insignificance. I was hooked by the novel and I wanted to read more Salinger. It was then that I discovered he hadn’t published any other novels, but he had put his initials on a few novellas and a collection of short stories. Many of these centred round different members of the same fictitious Glass family. In the random order that I plucked these slim books from library shelves, my insight into the sibling bonds and burdens both grew and skewed as I tapped into the different viewpoints of Franny and Zooey and Buddy and Seymour.
Short fiction can also make for a fertile playground when it comes to annoying or unlikeable protagonists. Those same irritants would surely outstay their welcome as the antiheroes of much longer pieces. Another benefit of the form is being able to leave something open or unresolved. If a reader invests a significant amount of time into a novel, he or she is likely to want – nay, expect – to be repaid with some sort of resolution. A short story on the other hand, can give you a glimpse into a life, a place, a situation, and then leave without clearing up. As a reader I feel more rewarded if I’ve done some of the work myself; filled in the back-story or joined a few of the dots.
Short stories are said to translate well into films – more so than novels. The latter can risk becoming bloated epics if the adaptations attempt to remain faithful to the text, or traitors to the source material if whole swathes of character development or sub-plot are given the chop. One of the cinema highlights of 2015, 45 Years, originated as a short story by David Constantine. 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button began life (or should that be ended life?) as a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And then there are the short stories of Raymond Carver – one of the undisputed masters of the form – offering such rich pickings that director and screenplay writer Robert Altman decided to weave several together for his 1993 film, Short Cuts; giving us an ensemble cast of twenty-plus characters who find their lives colliding and intersecting.
This can be one of the sticking points of the short story too, though – the fact that it is seen by many as merely a starting point for something else, be it a play, a film or a novel (i.e. a proper book).
“This’d make a great first chapter!” they’d cry, “I love it… What happens next? Let me know when it’s finished”. And then the short story writer would cry, too.
In recent years the short story has been somewhat resurgent, and a new-found respect is seemingly being bestowed upon it. Prestigious prizes that normally honour novelists have instead been tipping their solid gold hats towards short story writers. Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, Colin Barrett’s Young Skins won the Guardian First Book Award in 2014 and George Saunders’ Tenth of December collection picked up the £40,000 Folio Prize in 2014.
For me though, the best thing about reading – or writing – a collection of short stories is that you get lots of endings, not just the one.
Phil Olsen is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Phil has been appointed guest blogger at Bluecoat during their Short Story Writing Course starting 6 January 2012 until 1 June.