Were I called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which… should best fulfil the demands and serve the purposes of ambitious genius, should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion, and afford it the fairest opportunity of display, I should speak at once of the brief prose tale." - Edgar Allan Poe.
As many of you writers out there know, this month is National Novel Writing Month – or, ‘Nanowrimo’ – the time of year when thousands of writers all over the world take up the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. It is an exceptional challenge, and highly valuable to any writer hoping to break out as a novelist. But with all the added focus on the long form this month, we here at Writer’s Edit feel it is time to shift some of the spotlight back on to the shorter form. Because the truth is, the short story can be equally as valuable in kick-starting the career of a novelist. That’s why we are deeming this week ‘Short Story Week’ – to celebrate and examine the literary genre of the short, prose narrative.
Why the short story?
Just what is the significance of the short story? Why is this literary form important? And why should emerging novelists be writing short stories? Perhaps these questions are best answered by returning to the opening quote.
At the beginning of this article we quote Edgar Allan Poe – often deemed the ‘Father of the Short Story’. At the time Poe was writing in 1847, the short story was just emerging as a recognised literary genre. Clearly, Poe thought very highly of this new genre. After all, throughout the mid-19th century, he crafted some 69 short stories of his own. And indeed, the 19th century saw a boom of literary greats turn their talents to this format. Think Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just to name a few.
What place does the short story hold in literature today?
Although most modern writers strive to find ultimate success via the novel, it could be argued that the short story is still the best medium to ‘serve the purpose of ambitious genius’ and ‘afford it the fairest opportunity of display’.
For instance, short stories can often act as an important stepping-stone in the career of a novelist. For a first-time novelist, it can be difficult to establish credibility, both with readers, and with publishers, due to a lack of previous, published work. By publishing short stories in literary magazines, a first-time novelist can build up their profile, establish a readership, and gain credibility as a writer.
What is it about the short story that serves the ambitious writer so well?
Once again, the answer to this can be found in the words of Poe.
As the novel cannot be read at one sitting, it cannot avail itself of the immense benefit of totality. Worldly interests, intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, counteract and annul the impressions intended... In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out his full design without interruption. During the hour of perusal, the soul of the reader is at the writer's control."
Here, Poe indicates that the short story’s greatest advantage is its ability to be read ‘in one sitting’ – claiming that this allows the author to create his/her desired effect on the reader without being interrupted from the distractions of everyday life.
Short stories in the NOW...
Over 150 years later, Poe’s point is more relevant than ever. In a world of smart phones, social media, and high-speed Internet, it seems society’s attention span is ever-shrinking. If a writer wants to make an impression on a reader, they must do so quickly. They must be able to grab and hold the reader’s attention before the lure of the likes of Twitter chirps in their ear, and calls them away.
However, it is not only the reader’s attention we writers must fight for, but also that of literary agents, editors, and publishers as well.
Before committing their time and energy to developing us as writers, these literary professionals often wish to see examples of what we can do, however, they are also extremely busy, and often pressed for time. They will not, therefore, wish to sift through an entire novel manuscript. Instead, they will more likely be interested in shorter examples of our prose. While excerpts of longer works may still be helpful, a short story will have the advantage of ‘totality’. A literary agent/editor/publisher will be able to read a short story and develop a proper understanding of our abilities to create a complete, and unified narrative.
So, now you know the benefits of a short story, why not try writing one of your own? And keep an eye on Writer’s Edit, as we delve further into our celebration of Short Story Week.
This article was part one of three in an examination and celebration of the short story form. Stay tuned for parts two and three!