Short fiction is as old as humankind. Anecdotes, myths, fairy tales, tales and legends were told and written long before ‘short stories’ were defined as a genre. It is the novel that could be a called new and fang-dangled.
The first short tales were told before humans could write with storytellers often using rhyme to memorise stories. One the earliest still surviving tales is “The Shipwrecked Sailor” written on papyrus in Egypt around 2000 BCE. The Greek Aesop’s fables, the first know collection, dates to the 4th century BCE. There came a proliferation of forms through the middle ages and renaissance and refinement by authors such as Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Short fiction romped in popularity until the 16th century and the rise of ‘The Novel’. Of course, there were novels before this, but the novel took over in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The modern short story truly emerged in the 19th century. Unlike a tale, packed with romance and myth, early proponents of the genre, including Goethe, insisted it should be real – it did happen or it could have happened. Lucky we got over this hang-up. The fantastical of the early tales and realism of the things first called short stories merged into what we now think of as a short story.
There came a proliferation of magazines, short stories became grew in significance. Everyone was writing short stories and many of these collections are still on shelves today, including mine, including mine. It was a new heyday of sorts.
The internet came along opened up a whole new way of consuming short stories and the rise of flash fiction.
I think our brains are wired to need stories and short tales are how we got wired that way.
There is a short story about a girl who has to wear hand-me-down swimmers to a party. I can’t remember who wrote it or where I read it other than it being decades ago. This is the power of a short story.
I cut my teeth writing flash fiction and short stories. Along the way, I learnt the craft of writing – how to hook a reader, how to find the right voice, to structure and a little bit about where to put commas (sometimes). Most of all I learnt the importance of choosing the right words for the right moment.
After my novel Cassandra was published I found myself returning to writing short stories. I could not leave them alone. Then I got obsessed with interlinked or composite novels. It all started with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I was halfway through it before I realised each chapter was a perfect short story, that they could each exist without each other, but that the sum of their parts was the entire story. It was the first time I ever finished a book and immediately turned back to the first page and read it again. I needed to know how she did this thing. I wanted to do this thing. I was crazy!
I embarked on writing a collection centred around Paul, the Dark Poet and discovered how hard it is to write a novel of this type. You have to constantly search for new ideas that fit the big picture. Each individual story has its own genesis and effort. The idea of the Dark Poet came first but I only discovered who he was through the eyes of the people I found in the each of the stories.
Which brings me back to the question, why do people still love short stories?
I love short fiction because of the power of less being more. A short story is a sliver of a person’s life. What came before and what happens afterwards is left unsaid. It is like looking through a microscope and studying insignificance and discovering how important every moment of life can be. A good short story packs in character and emotion and conflict with so few words and is a marvel of restraint and focus.
They are intense and concentrated and can tell a truth about what it is to be human with such succinctness that we do not forget the message. Like the girl in the hand-me-down swimmers. Her true friends still liked her despite her hand-me-down swimmers. That is what I needed to know when I read it.
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