canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Commentary & Response on "What Makes A Short Story"

January 2006

by Michael Bryson and Harold Hoefle

This past summer, the editors at lichen asked me (Michael) to submit a short essay for a new series they're running. They gave me more-or-less free reign, though not a lot of space. I decided to tackle a question I'd been bouncing around for a while: What makes a short story?

After completing a draft, I emailed it to my good friend Harold Hoefle, who responded:


I just read your piece and found it pretty thorough, with a number of interesting angles presented. You've got academic and practitioner theorists (Glover); you've got a 20th-Century canonical sense (Updike, Hem); you've tackled at the knees the problem of definition. All good. All good and, I'd say, somewhat mild -- I think you can tweak the voice and get way more passionate about what YOU like, about YOUR own two books, your avant garde efforts and successes. I think that, if you really want to "go for it" in this essay, you've got to weave in your informed subjective points and experiences, and therefore change the calm sane rational reasoned voice in the essay, or, make it a two-part essay and distill your experiences and tastes in a Part Two. Again, I like everything in the essay, but I'd really like to see some of the following:

  • your experiences: how you've written stories, what you're proud of, the editing process, where ideas come from....
  • story opening lines you like, sections of stories you like, techniques you admire and try to use...
  • differences of sensibility that appeal to you and the writers that incarnate them
  • non-Western writers you admire, and how they're different from Western writers (in terms of the manipulation of the two great metaphysicals: time and space; also, "how characters behave", as reflective of cultural values, codes of propriety etc; e.g. Dos's characters sure don't act like the ones in Timothy Findley, not to mention Oe's characters, Ha Jin's, Marquez's, Juan Rulfo's...)
  • What kind of stories are you reading in Can. journals and the big Yank ones (New Yorker, etc), and do you notice differences in these stories and the ones embedded in the canon, the Flannery efforts etc etc
  • The po-mo question: how much has the work of Barthelme, Lish, Pynchon etc survived as serious s.s. fiction?

All of these machinegunned thoughts are just that, things for you to consider. If you added a whack of subjective comments, experiences, insights and maybe even wishes (what stories are you not reading but WANT to read? And how have you tried to write them?), I don't think that would take too long to write, be too hard, and it would be a rush of new blood to the essay. Right now, it's good. I think it could be closer to very good, and even definitive.



Below I provide my response to Harold:


First, thank you very much for your time, your attention and your insights. I've got to say, though, I find that last word a stretch: definitive? I feel more like Garth Iorg than Reggie Jackson, if you know what I mean. More like Wendel Clark than Wayne Gretzky. Being definitive wasn't ever my goal. Actually, I find attempts to be definitive kind of creepy.

What I think you've picked up on is the "intro" nature of this essay. As I was writing it, I imagined it as the first of a series. Kind of a laying out of the territory. The view from 10,000 feet. Just the basics, in other words. The points you raised are great avenues of departure. But I think they're best saved for parts two and beyond of this essay.

As for tweaking the voice and getting "way more passionate," well, my friend, now you're starting to sound like my ex-girlfriends. ... What do I like? What do I admire? What am I proud of? Honestly, I think I'm still trying to figure all of that out. But since you asked:

  • My experiences. How I've written stories. Where my ideas come from. I'm so disinclined to answer this question. There's 33 stories in the two books I've published, plus I have more than twice that in un-book-published stories. Where do my ideas come from? I don't know. They just pop into my head. Situations, characters, sentences. I think I write the stories to discover the shape of the initial idea. Writing for me is a process of discovery. Yes, there is some conscious shaping that happens. I make choices; I direct the narrative. But less than 50% of the time, I'd say. Most of my writing process is intuitive. I've learned to trust my instincts. To enable my conscious mind to respond to my unconscious mind, not the other way around. I'm aware that certain patterns repeat in my stories. I'm not sure why that is -- why those particular patterns repeat. I write a lot about relationships, for instance. I don't know if that's because relationships offer much material for stories or if there's a more personal psychological reason for that. This question doesn't really interest me. How can I make my stories better? That's what interests me.
  • Story openings I like. Sections of stories I like. Techniques I admire. First, I'm hard to impress. I think there are many good writers out there, but there are few exceptional writers. Also, what I find exceptional, I know others dislike. When I was an undergraduate, I liked Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Faulker. I was very impressed by writers with good prose. I wasn't much aware of short story writers per se. I started writing stories with little awareness of the field. I struggled initially with what a "story" was. I could write incidents, but couldn't seem to pull off a story. I thought a story needed to have action. My characters were terribly passive. Eric McCormack's Inspecting the Vaults helped me see "story" better. Then I read Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and I saw here was a writer who had achieved what I was grappling towards. His characters were passive, but his stories were stories. Also, he could write a declarative sentence like Hemingway, but he had worked his way past Hemingway's influence also. And he had great opening lines. I started focusing on getting good opening lines, then writing stories that maintained the tension from sentence to sentence. Much of my first book, 13 Shades of Black and White, is influenced by Carver. But I hope I haven't stopped there. Carver was a window into other approaches. Other a-ha stories have been Mark Anthony Jarman's "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" from 19 Knives, which I first read in an anthology I reviewed for TDR and Douglas Glover's "16 Categories of Desire" from the collection of the same name. There are others, of course. I feel like I'm getting away from the question. Are there techniques I admire? Yes, many. Too many to list here. I feel that I am catholic in my tastes. I can find something to admire in the work Alice Munro and in something by Hal Niedzviecki. I admire both the traditionalists and the experimenters. I don't want to be forced to choose between one and the other. I think literature should be like jazz: fusion.
  • Differences of sensibility that appeal to me. You know, it's probably easier for me to say what I dislike, because what appeals to me falls across boundaries that critics take professional care to separate: like the traditional and the experimental. Literature shouldn't be like network television or FM radio. Pre-programmed. What I dislike are staid narratives. Stories that repeat tired situations. They can be realistic or experimental: both have their clichés. For the September 2005 issue of TDR, I read over 250 stories. Most were well written, up to a point. Many were intelligent. Very few took me someplace I hadn't been before or showed me something I hadn't seen before. I've discovered that I can become bored and irritated when reading an well written -- and dull -- story. How do you escape dull? Make it new. Make it unique. Don't repeat. (I know this may seem to contradict what I've said earlier about my own Carver-inspired collection -- and the awareness I have of the patterns in my stories -- but there you go: I have my own issues to address, I know.)
  • Non-western writers I admire. I confess. My non-western reading is horrifically slim. Is Borges a western writer? Calvino? Someone told me After the Quake by Haruki Murakami was excellent. I thought it was okay. I read Acts of Worship by Yukio Mishima and appreciated it very much. I read a novel about shifting sands by a Japanese writer, last name Abe, which impressed me a lot. I'm not sure I'm with you, Harold, on the "how characters behave" thing. Humans are humans; literature transcends sociology. What may tie a novel or story to a specific geography isn't what makes it literature, in my opinion. There are those in this country who believe "all literature is regional." I can't agree with that, which may make me a central Canadian imperialist and the enemy of George Bowering. So be it. (Oh, yeah. I've read some GG Marquez stories that I liked a lot. Reminded me of Kafka. Which the Borges stories did, too. I'd like to deconstruct this notion of western/non-western literature. John Barth -- of Lost in the Funhouse fame -- has noted how the short story goes back to Scheherazade and Boccaccio. The Book of One-Thousand and One Nights. Did western literature start in Iraq?!)
  • What kinds of stories am I reading in magazines and do I notice a difference between those and the stories already canonized. Well, I haven't read too many stories that I thought stacked up against "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" or "A Rose for Emily" or even "Hills Like White Elephants." Actually, I find I prefer to read a whole collection of short stories by the same writer, instead of anthologies or journals. It's like slipping into Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" instead of listening to Top 40 radio. I want the LP experience. Soaking up the sensibility of the writer. There's something about a short story in a magazine that I distrust. I have a hard time reading them. However, if you're asking about current stories versus "classic" stories ... I think there are many good writers tackling the short story form today. It's just hard to find them, hard to classify them, hard to find the time to read them all ... but I suspect it's always been this way, to a certain extent. Faulkner wrote for the popular magazines, as well as Hollywood. What we consider classic is only separated from its original capitalist context by the filter of the academy, which has its own hierarchies to protect. Finally, I have to add that it seems to me the canonized stories are hugely diverse and don't really exist as a stand alone category. For contemporary stories: ditto.
  • The po-mo question. Barthelme. Lish. Pynchon. I recently re-read Barthelme's 60 Stories and admired it more than I had previously, though I also thought it was uneven; I saw flaws that I hadn't seem before (I am less anxious about it as an influence, more certain of its faults, more admiring of its successes). Lish -- can't say I've ever admired his fiction. I have read some of it, had a tepid response to it. Where he left a mark, in my opinion, was as Carver's editor; he made What We Talk About When We Talk About Love the bright light it is. Pynchon -- as a short story writer? Not his strongest work. I have read Slow Learner, and I'd put "Entropy" in my own personal canon. But I haven't read it in years, so maybe my admiration is just nostalgia. That said, thank god for the post-modernists! We don't to be taken over by them, but we need a constant stream of them. Anyone who thinks literature is a simple mirror to reality needs to drop some acid lickety damn split. Or watch "The Simpsons" for 24-hours straight. Or read Cervantes or Tristram Shandy or, hell, Shakespeare and get smart that post-modernism didn't start in 1966. The po-mo question isn't a contemporary question. It's been around forever. It's been a question for writers forever. It ain't going anywhere. And like I said before, I admire both the traditionalists and the experimenters. I don't want to be forced to choose between one and the other. I think literature should be like jazz: fusion. Douglas Glover, as usual, has interesting things to say about this subject and much more. See, for example, his book length essay on Don Quixote.

Okay, Harold, here we are at the end. You've asked: What stories am I not reading that WANT to read. How have I tried to write them? This might sound like an odd way to answer these questions, but ... when I first had the inclination that I wanted to take writing seriously, I didn't think I would be focusing on short stories. The vision I had in my head was to write "big novels." I kind of thought like Charles Dickens' novels. Sprawling stories. Why? Because I lived in Toronto and I thought the only way to capture the reality of my experience was in big sprawling novels. However, over time I've come to a different conclusion. It now seems to me that "reality," such as it is, is a fragmented random series of narratives that bump up against, bounce off and merge into each other. And that short stories are a more "natural" genre than the novel. We tell stories to each other every day. What happened to you this morning? Did you meet so-and-so? What she like? Sounds a little like Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, doesn't it? That isn't really the kind of thing I want to read more of. I want to read stories that take me places I haven't been. That show me bits of reality that can't be communicated on television. Recently, I thought Craig Davidson's Rust & Bone was great, for example. I read McLuhan when I was in high school, and I've had a bit of him in me ever since. I want short story writer to look at their medium -- not in a highly self-conscious, hyper po-mo way. But in a way that is self-aware that the story is a story. I'm a skeptical reader. I don't trust "objective narrators." We're beyond that, surely. The politicians and generals may not think so, but this is where us literary types must stand united. De do do do, de da da da. As The Police sang. That's all I have to say to you.


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).

Harold Hoefle teaches English literature in Montreal. He is the author of Spray Job (Black Bile Press, 2003). He helped select the fiction for TDR's September 2002 issue. In 2005, his work will appear in Grain, The Windsor Review and the Vehicule Press anthology Lust for Life: Tales of Love & Sex.






TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.