Adventures in Reading

Anton Chekhov on the short story
“Your works lack the compactness that makes short things alive.” From a letter written by Anton Chekhov to E.M. Sh—, Nov. 17, 1895.

I have dipped once into an Anton Chekhov story “The Lady With the Little Dog” from My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead collection edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. I recall enjoying it at the time and I was pleased to stumble across Chekhov again in What is the short story?. A few excerpts from letters further expand on, well, short storiness.

“But you must give the reader no chance to recover: he must always be kept in surprise. … Long, detailed works have their own peculiar aims, which require a most careful execution regardless of the total impression. But in short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because, –because– I don’t know why! …” (a letter from 1888) For anyone who writes, fiction or nonfiction, I am sure it is reassuring that even Chekhov occasionally cannot find the words to express himself. But it’s true. Some short stories due seem to be missing information and I shy away from using the word fragmented but there you are. However, it’s fragmented with purpose.

Seven years later it seems that Chekhov perhaps found a response for his “because” when he explains “When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Chekhov is saying this specifically in regards to his lack of combining “art and sermon,” but I also interpret it as applying to the previous statement. Short stories, like poetry, demand that the reader fills in the gaps. It’s easy to say that a short story writer may limit information as a result of space but saying not enough engages the reader in a certain manner. It’s a tool, not a casual convention.

This tactic is explored in novels but the novel will at some point resolve and fill in these gaps. Short stories often beg the reader to take their own account of the situation and define the story for herself. I suppose the short story could be considered a fill-in-the-blank parable where the reader provides her own moral stimulus.

What Is A Story?

Jerome Stern’s anthology Micro Fiction, providing fiction even shorter than Flash Fiction Forward, has given me a good deal to mull over. In this anthology each story is no more than 300 words long (and in the earlier competitions there was a 250 word maximum) and as the introduction begs the question: “Can a short story be too short to be a short story?” In the introduction, Stern references traditional forms of the very short stories including Aesop’s Fables and the New and Old Testament [1].

I jumped in and read the first three stories — “The Poet’s Husband” by Molly Giles (a poet gives a reading and asks her husband what she thinks of it), “The Cough” by Harry Humes (a coal miner’s relationship with his family as black lung begins to creep upon him), and “Daydream” by Robert Allen (in a car being driven too fast by her brother-in-law a woman daydreams) — and my knee jerk reaction was the first and third stories are not stories though the middle one is. Very quickly I found myself on an adventure attempting to describe exactly what a story is.

As I don’t have a copy of Aesop’s Fables I looked up Stern’s listed Biblical stories and would agree that these are indeed stories, and my New Oxford Annotated Bible specifically refers to these as parables (as does Stern), which my Oxford American College Dictionary describes as “a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.”

Stern’s traditional and historical examples of short shorts I believe can all be describes as parables: short stories trying to get a message across. Chekhov said of his short tales that “Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique.” Rereading the first three micro fictions I’m not sure if any of them are parables in the sense of the fables and sermons, which have front and center the idea of moral development. Part of the reason the fables and sermons can read as stories is this theme of morality seems front and center. Stern also considers the use of anecdote and joke forms.

As the examples did not help me much I turned to the dictionary and looked up short story: “a story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” And story: “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment, a plot or story line.” Both plot and story line imply a sequence of events and I decided to reconsider the stories from this perspective. In this sense they are all stories. I’m still curious why the second story stuck out at me.

I’m looking forward to reading more selections from Micro Fiction. In the introduction Stern also comments on developing new forms of short story writing and perhaps this has a little more truth to it than the historical comparisons. I don’t believe these three stories are necessarily offering advice or Jungian wisdom, but I do think they’re fascinating and poetical experiments in story writing. Reflecting on James Thomas and Robert Shapard’s introduction to Flash Fiction Forward, I suppose at least one concern does linger at how close some of these stories come to being summaries.

[1] Luke 15:11 -22, Luke 10:30-35, and Matthew 25:1 – 12 are the listed Biblical examples.