Literary Rock Pools: Why the Short Story is Alive and Well

Mark Stewart on short story writing

Mark Stewart is the author of two collections of short stories: The Screaming Planet and The Absence of Wings. Written in the style of magical realism, both collections show the world through the eyes of some of the world’s most endangered and persecuted animals. Mark also co-authored and co-edited the biography Arthur C. Clarke – A Life RememberedIn 2014 he won the Sir Patrick Moore Medal for services to the British Interplanetary Society where he founded and edited the e-magazine Odyssey for two and a half years. More on his website here with many of his stories, including the recently published ‘Letters from an Astronaut’. You can follow him on Twitter @pendragonmist.

 


Literary Rock Pools: Why the Short Story is Alive and Well

 

Many people in mainstream publishing will tell you that no one reads short stories anymore. But that simply isn’t true. The short story thrives in literary magazines and via competitions and on specialist web sites, all of which are supported by a community of readers and writers devoted to the art of literary sketches. And perhaps, unlike its grander cousin the novel, the short story is constantly evolving into new variants such as flash fiction, mini novellas and micro fiction. How many novelists would be brave enough to attempt a story in six words or less?

My own stories are bonsai pieces designed to be read in a single sitting. And this is what is so appealing about this narrative form: its brevity and digestibility. And perhaps, above all, its immediacy. There is no long run-in with a short story, no point at which the narrative sags. These are worlds that offer themselves up to the reader from the first line of the first page. In a world where quantity often seems to matter more than quality, the short story can lay that fallacy to rest. It isn’t always the biggest tome on the shelf that’s worth reading.

Short story writers have to use words the way a sniper uses bullets: every round, every word has to count. The reader’s interest has to be captured with the opening  sentence, not with the first few thousand words. And a short story can take almost as long a novel to write; I work on my short stories, on and off, for anything up to a year. Like writing a novel, creating a short story is a process of accretion, thoughts forming into words, words into sentences and so on. The final product is a distillation of the imagination in exactly the same way that a novel is. In geological terms, the final product may be more of a rock pool than an ocean but it is still worth exploring these fascinating literary microcosms.

All writers share a common passion, some would say obsession. In short: writers write. If you cut a writer, perhaps in an altercation over an unpaid bar bill, you’ll find his veins are filled with ink. Lift up the top of his skull and you’ll discover a brain full of words, each as slippery as a tadpole, a narrative soup bubbling away like a simmering cauldron. Writers have book spines for backbones, and a treasured tome where their heart should be. The sound of that heartbeat isn’t the regular tick of an organic clock but the susurration of pages being turned in rapid succession, like the hiss of the wind. And more likely than not their eyes have grown myopic from staring at the printed page, their gaze permanently focused at that point in space where they hold a book, or stare at a computer screen.

J.K. Rowling once wrote that “the wand chooses the wizard.” In the same way, I didn’t consciously choose to work in the short form. It chose me. My stories begin and end of their own accord and are often complete in less than three thousand words. Pocket sized tales, perfect for audiences that want to receive their fiction in a condensed burst, that prefers the extravagance of the supernovae to the slow burn of an average sun.

Now more than ever the short form exerts a real appeal, especially to the heads down generation of modern book lovers, who want their literary fix via their mobiles or Kindles.  So I say, long live the short story. The rumours of its demise are premature and exaggerated. Perhaps it’s the novel that should be looking over its shoulder, worried by the prospect of impending extinction.

It’s hard not to believe that the short story has been marginalised by a publishing industry that is only interested in making money from commercial fiction. But in these literary edge lands the short form is thriving. In the end it is these stories that will stand the test of time, because their roots have had to fight through stony ground to take hold; they will still be flowering long after their more verbose counterparts have withered and died.

The short story writer eyes the same peaks as the novelist; he just gets there by a different route. His base camp is closer to the summit, his path more direct. On the way up he breathes the same rarefied air as those who specialise in the long form. And when the task is done, and he views from the peak the full extent of the narrative terrain, the sense of accomplishment, of having brought characters to life that wouldn’t otherwise exist, is just the same. Every writer has a place inside them, somewhere in their imagination, where their stories begin, a place where the river starts to flow. Where those deep and mysterious waters come from no one knows for sure. Writing really is the spooky art, a process that is just as strange and compelling for the short story writer as it is for the novelist. All writers are haunted by the stories they create, by the souls they have lifted from the well of inspiration.


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