In the week that Alice Munro won the nobel prize for literature it is very apt to discuss the short story, its subtle art and its recent renaissance. As a literary form it was the last to develop. Of all the literary forms I believe the short story to be one of the jewels in the crown. Storytelling in one form or other is hardwired into our human discourse, a way for us to shape the telling of our personal histories and to imagine possibilities ‘that would enchant, terrify, enthral, admonish, titillate’ and entertain. The informal oral tradition of storytelling only became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology coupled with the middle-class literacy in the 19th century gave rise to mass market general interest magazines and periodicals to service the new reading public’s desires and preferences. This new medium provided a forum for a piece of short fiction in the five to fifty page range and writers like Hawthorne, Poe and Turgenev rose to the challenge and began to write classic and timeless short stories virtually from the outset. The novel still held sway in mid 19th century Britain even after the influential story “ The Two Drovers” was published by Walter Scott in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827; a literary text that inspired George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in Britain, Balzac in France, Pushkin and Turgenev in Russia and Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne in America. In fact the true beginnings of the short story has been laid at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s door with his publication of Twice- Told Tales in 1837. When Edgar Allen Poe read Hawthorne he made the first real analysis of the form with his simple definition of the short story as a narrative that “can be read in one sitting.”
He also encapsulates the ability of short fiction to become more resonant and memorable than its length might dictate. A short story written
with care and skill” is like “a picture painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.
It is generally agreed by literary critics that Anton Chekov (1860-1904) is the greatest short story writer ever. William Boyd in his essay A Short History Of The Short Story states that the simple reason for this is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890’s “revolutionised the short story by revolutionising narrative.” This new form of short story introduced a fictional style that corresponded with the random, inexplicable and sometimes agonising lives we all lead- Chekhov abandoned the old authorial manipulation of a story for one not striving for a climax and with characters who speak for themselves without censure or praise. His cool, unflinching, dispassionate attitude to the human condition resounds in writers as diverse as William Trevor and Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, Muriel Spark and Alice Munro.
Some of my favourite short story writers include F.Scott Fitzgerald especially his collection ” Flappers and Philosophers ” and the works of Flannery O’Connor whose story A Good Man is Hard to Find is one of the finest in literary history. The beauty of Alice Munro’s prose is a joy for any reader and her often melancholy tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best. . Kevin Barry is a new voice in Irish Fiction who writes dark, blackly hilarious and realistic narratives. His short story “Beer Trip to Llandudno” won the Sunday Time’s award last year and having seen him give a very animated reading at a literary festival I began to read his work most notably the short story collections Dark Lies the Island and There are Little Kingdoms. Barry is able to breathe life into characters and make them engaging to the reader; amateur ale enthusiasts on a beer trip to Wales when portrayed by Barry become “sweet, funny and unexpectedly moving” – his account of a hotel owner’s experience in a remote part of Ireland where ” it rained two hundred and eighty seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings” is especially entertaining.
Short story collections are ideal to read when the reader wants to commit less time to the experience than that required when reading a large novel. The journey can be all the more entertaining despite its brevity and when vividly told the story allows readers to live momentarily but memorably beyond the confines of their own individual existence.