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Quality over quantity?


Pria Rai discusses why the merits of the short story form shouldn’t be neglected anymore.

english short storiesWhy should the short story form be constantly compared to the novel? Let it stand alone, as strong as the poem. For decades literary critics have contested the worth of this form. Does it provide a complete narrative? Does it provide enough detail and pathos for us to even care about the fate of the characters? A perfect example is the Canadian export, Margaret Laurence, specifically, A Bird in the House, first published in 1970. This collection of short stories focuses on the life and family of Vanessa MacLeod, from early childhood through to adulthood in the present day. She experiences a unique childhood; trapped by old traditions and ideologies, the reader is left questioning whether Vanessa will be able be to form a concrete identity of her own.

While you may expect the novelist to allow a few chapters for the building of connections with characters and setting the scene, it is the unique skill of the short story writer to give an instant sense of involvement, with immediate interest. Laurence’s use of the first person, the nostalgic narrative voice of Vanessa, brings the reader as close as possible to understanding the reasoning behind future events, without having to endure a sometimes tedious account of life up to a relevant point. It allows us to grow with the protagonist, and experience emotions as she would. Not long is needed to understand Vanessa’s cynical tone, or coldness towards particular family members. This is because her voice is used as a short cut into her world; as a reader the empathy caused by the restriction of Vanessa’s childhood sees us become more than just a listener of her story. In this respect, the short story is shown to be just as, if not more powerful than the novel, because the writer is implicitly aware of the importance to make each sentence necessary and meaningful.

The argument of being left wanting more following a short story experience is undeniable. As with most works in this form, chunks of Vanessa’s life are missed out, with the deaths of family members suddenly sprung upon us, and Vanessa growing by the years between stories. However, it is important to remember that we are dealing with fictional stories, after all, the purpose of which is to give us an escape from the reality of our own lives. If it is a fact-filled documentary you want, seek instead autobiographies or news features. If not, decisions of the author to skip the details of certain events should be trusted as beneficial for the overall story. Whether it be a short story, novel, poem, theatre production or even a painting, it is not the duty of any art work to leave one satisfied with the a complete story. A successful piece will leave one with a thousand thoughts running around their head, which open their eyes to new ideas and ways of life. It entertains and occupies their brain with both happiness and sorrow, and leaves them asking “what if?”

In the twenty first century, the demand for the short story still survives. Days only ever seem shorter, and time for a novel is often scarce in the working or studying life. The Best British Short Stories 2013, edited by Nicholas Royle, contains a col1ection of 20 stories by different authors, some only a few pages in length. Nonetheless, do not let this detract from the widely relatable imagery and poignant messages that lie deeper within.

Pria Rai

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