canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

What Makes A Short Story

by Michael Bryson

[This essay first appeared in lichen 7.2, Fall/Winter 2005]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the short story is a genre in want of an audience. Publishers are wary of short story collections because they "don’t sell." Book sellers interweave story collections into banks of novels under the general category of "fiction." There is no National Short Story Month. There is no Griffin Short Story Prize. No one has ever claimed short story writers are the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world.

Perhaps that’s because it is a truth universally acknowledged that the short story is difficult to define. The short story is commonly defined with a tautology: a short story is a story that is short. But how short is short? Hal Niedzviecki’s collection Smell It includes a one sentence story. Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" is significantly longer. If the adjective is difficult to pin down, consider the noun. What is a story? It is a prose tale, yes. But is an anecdote enough?

What’s more, it is a truth universally acknowledged that short stories are novels in embryo. Short stories are widely seen as a kind of training ground by aspiring writers, creative writing programs, publishers, agents, journalists, and readers with, and without, literary aspirations. A training ground for what? A training ground for the "real" genre, the genre of substance, the genre that sells (and thus employs), the genre against which history judges: a training ground for the novel.

Truths universally acknowledged, however, are often balderdash. Short stories are no more miniature novels than photographs are miniature movies. Nor are sales figures a relevant category when classifying or evaluating literature. What, then, of this problem of definition? How long can a story be and still remain "short?" And what counts as a story? Attempts to answer these questions have been made repeatedly over the past 200 years.

Short story theorists point to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) as the one who first claimed the short story was an independent genre – and a genre superior to the long prose tale, or novel, at that. In her introduction to The Tales We Tell – Perspectives On The Short Story (Greenwood Press, 1998), Susan Lohafer says of Poe:

He gave us our primary emphases in discussions of the form: style; brevity; status. He identified what he called the short prose tale, and told us it could be read in one sitting. He placed it once and for all between the lyric poem, with its power to concentrate effort, and prose forms like the novel and the sketch, with their power to represent the world.

If Poe set the original terms of the discussion, he also started a dialogue without end. Problems of definition are intrinsic to the short story form.

In The New Short Story Theories (Ohio University Press, 1994), editor Charles E. May begins by noting that "the first issue about which we need to come to some understanding – if for no other reason than to call a truce on it – is the issue of definition." May goes on to outline some of the areas under dispute. Such as "length." Some theories argue "that length alone is not a sufficient determiner [of the short story] if all characteristics besides length that may be posited for the short story may also be posited for the novel." On the other hand, May notes others argue the short story is dependent on the longer form because the shorter form "cannot be defined except by comparison." Length, however, has not be a problem of definition for the novel, May notes: "for some reason, the ‘longness’ of the novel has been seen as an intrinsic characteristic."

What we can see here is the problem of definition spinning in its endless cycle of infinite regress. More substantial categories are needed. Consider, for example, two possible definitions of the short story by Douglas Glover (The New Quarterly, #87, Summer 2003):

A short story is a narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs. B). This conflict needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again (three is a good number to start with, but there can be more). Or, another definition I use: By a story I mean a narrative that extends through a set of articulations, events or event sequences, in which the central conflict is embodied once, and again, and again (three is the critical number here – looking back at the structure of folk tales) such that in these successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.

If you are inclined to theorems, Glover provides this mathematical-type paraphrase of his primary definition of a short story:


Glover defines narrative as "the movement of characters through time," which excludes Niedzviecki’s single sentence story from contention. (The story is titled "Between Two Old Ladies," and goes like this: "There is a sudden smell here"). Or does it? The title provides the characters, the story the plot. The word "sudden" suggests a "before" and an "after." What’s missing is any information about these characters. What are their motivations (desires)? What are the obstacles to attaining their desires? There is no series of instances, no central conflict, no look back at an archetypal folk tale.

So, what makes a short story? One must begin with the admission that no single definition will suffice – and no ultimate definition ever found. Writers will continue to expand the boundaries of the possible, in many directions. Niedzviecki’s story is obviously an extreme example of the form. Equally limiting, if applied severely, is Glover’s emphasis on "structural" elements; if story is more than length, it is also more than plot. In A Moveable Feast, for example, Hemingway famously noted how visits to the Louvre influenced his prose style. Similarly, Joseph Brodsky has said that "a writer’s biography is in his twists of language." Literature rests, in part, on making unique marks.

Technique was central to the definition of the short story 100 years ago. As Lohafer notes, writers emphasized "subjective points of view, pervasive imagery, controlled voice, ellipsis." Today, however, "we have waded free of explications de texte" (i.e., limiting our interpretations based solely on articulating the interrelationships of the words on the page). For example, Lohafer notes one influential theorist sees in the short story links "to the angst and rebellion of excluded peoples." Others (including Lohafer herself) see in "story . . . the origins of culture, the morphology of folktales, the oral tradition, the circuits of the brain."

In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), John Updike claimed that the importance of short stories as a "news-bearing medium" had diminished in recent decades. When pressed to explain himself in an interview on, Updike said, "I do think short stories used to tell people how other people lived, and in a surprising and edifying way. Now many readers turn toward celebrity anecdotes for narrative." Yes, the days of mass audiences for short stories may be long gone. It’s unlikely, however, that readers of John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor ever had much in common with the readers of The National Enquirer.

In conclusion, if short stories are in our brain circuits, they will remain with us as long as the synapses are firing. They will continue to surprise and awe us. They will always be at least a little bit mysterious. Which reminds me, have your heard this one . . . .

Michael Bryson is the publisher and editor of The Danforth Review. His story "Six Million Million Miles" appeared in 05: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon Press).







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