I’ve spent past 20 years reading and writing short stories—which, given some careers, ain’t all that much, but it is more than half my adult life. I guess you could say I’m one of those true believers. I teach the form every year without fail, and when I’m asked to give a lecture on a literary form (a rarity), the short story is inevitably my craft subject du jour. Even now that my writing is focused entirely on novels, short fiction is still the genre I feel most protective of. The end-of-the-novel bullshit that erupts with measles-like regularity among a certain strain of literary folks doesn’t exercise me as much as when people tell me they never read short stories. At these moments I find myself proselytizing like a madman and I will go as far as to mail favorite collections to the person in question. (For real, I do this.) I hate the endless shade thrown at the short story — whether from publishers or editors or writers who talk the form down, who don’t think it’s practical or sufficiently remunerative—and I always cheer when a story collection takes a prize or becomes a surprise bestseller (rare and getting rarer). I always have at least one story collection on my desk or near my bed for reading—and there’s never a week when I don’t have a story I just read kicking around inside my head.
I am as much in awe of the form’s surpassing beauty as I am bowled over by its extraordinary mutability and generativity. I love the form’s spooky effects, how in contradistinction to the novel, which gains its majesty from its expansiveness, from its size, the short story’s colossal power extends from its brevity and restraint. Or, as Dagoberto Gilb has said, in the story “the small is large, strength is economy, simplicity, not verbosity.” If the novel is our culture’s favored literary form, upon which we heap all our desiccated literary laurels, if the novel is, say, our Jaime Lannister, then the short story is our very own Tyrion: the disdained little brother, the perennial underdog. But what an underdog. Give a short story a dozen pages and it can break hearts bones vanities and cages. And in the right hands there’s more oomph in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form. It’s precisely this exhilarating atomic compound of economy + power that has entranced readers and practitioners alike for generations, and also explains why the story continues to attract our finest writers.
But such power does not come without a price. This is a form that is unforgiving as fuck, and demands from its acolytes unnerving levels of exactitude. A novel, after all, can absorb a whole lot of slackness and slapdash and still kick massive ass, but a short story can unravel over a pair of injudicious sentences. And while novels can dawdle for chapters before sparking into brilliance, the short story needs to be about its business from its opening line. Short stories are acts of bravura, and for a form junkie like me, to read a good one has all the thrill of watching a high-wire act. When the writer pulls it off sentence by sentence scene by scene page after page from first touch to last, you almost forget to breathe.
Novels might be able to summon entire worlds, but few literary forms can match the story at putting a reader in touch with life’s fleeting, inexorable rhythm. It’s the one great benefit of the form’s defining limitation.
Stories, after all, are short, just like our human moments. (We’re all Tyrion, narratively speaking.) Compared to the novel, stories strike like life and end with its merciless abruptness as well. Just as you’re settling into the world of a story, that’s usually when the narrative closes, ejecting you from its embrace, typically forever. With a novel there’s a more generous contact. When you read a novel you know implicitly that it ain’t going to end for a good long while. Characters might die, families might leave their home nations, generations might rise and fall, but the world of the novel, which is its heart, endures . . . as long as there are pages. A novel’s bulk is a respite from life’s implacable uncertainty. You and I can end in a heartbeat, without warning, but no novel ends until that last page is turned. There’s something deeply consoling about that contract the novel makes with its reader.
No such consolation when you read stories. That’s the thing—just as they’re beginning they’re ending. As with stories, so with us. To me this form captures better than any other what it is to be human—the brevity of our moments, the cruel irrevocability when those times places and people we hold the most dear slip through our fingers.
Some friends have told me that their lives resemble novels. That’s super-cool. Mine, alas, never has. Maybe it’s my Caribbean immigrant multiplicity, the incommensurate distances between the worlds I inhabit, but my life has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else. Thing is, I’m all these strange pieces that don’t assemble into anything remotely coherent. Hard for me to square that kid in Santo Domingo climbing avocado trees with the teen in Central NJ bringing a gun to school with the man who now writes these words on the campus of MIT. Forget the same narrator—these moments don’t feel like they’re in the same book or even the same genre. Those years when I was running around in the South Bronx, helping my boys drag their congas to their shows—that time feels like it happened to someone else. (That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it? ) I guess some of us have crossed too many worlds and lived too many lives for unity.