Short story

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Short story

Short story: A brief fictional prose narrative, typically 1,000—10,000 words in length, that often centers on a particular episode or event. Short stories may range from about 500—2,000 words (the short short story, such as O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” [1906]) to 12,000—20,000 words (the long short story, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead” [1907]) or even to novella-length works such as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). The short story may be distinguished from the even briefer prose narrative form known as the anecdote by its meticulous and deliberate craftsmanship. It may also be distinguished from the longer novel form by its relatively simple purpose, which is generally to reveal essential aspects of a character or characters, not to show character development over time. Unlike novels, short stories usually have a single focus and produce a specific dramatic revelation or effect (often the result of opposing motivations or forces) toward which the story builds and to which everything else in the story is subordinate. Short stories are like novels, however, insofar as they have the chameleon capability of reflecting characteristics and elements of any number of other major genres.

The short story has a long history, having been told in works ranging from the Bible to medieval romances and in forms as diverse as parables, fabliaux, fables, and tales. Examples include the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron (1548). The nineteenth century, however, ushered in a revolution in short-story narration, giving rise to the modern short story. American writer Edgar Allan Poe, who pioneered detective fiction in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), was particularly influential; theorizing the “prose tale” in an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837), Poe emphasized the importance of the “certain unique or single effect… . In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” Other nineteenth-century writers who significantly developed the short story into an artistic narrative form include Washington Irving in the United States, Honoré de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant in France, E. T. A. Hoffmann in Germany, and Anton Chekhov in Russia.

In the twentieth century, the short story emerged as a dominant literary genre through the work of writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Jorge Luis Borges, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Saki (H. H. Munro), Jean-Paul Sartre, and Eudora Welty. In the twenty-first century, flash fiction, an extremely short form of the short story ranging from about six to one thousand words in length, has become popular.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), Maupassant’s “La parure” (“The Necklace”) (1884), Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby” (1893), Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1898), Chekhov’s “The Bishop” (1902), Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914), Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948), Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction story “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber (1979), Jayne Anne Phillips’s collection Black Tickets (1979), Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Noted twenty-first century collections include T. C. Boyle’s After the Plague (2001); Alice Munro’s Runaway (2004); Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Phil Klay’s Redeployment (2014); and Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved (2016), a collection of flash fiction and other short short stories about, among other things, sex in the city.