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What is a short story?

July 24, 2010

Annie Proulx, photo by Embajada de EEUU, Buenos Aires

I think of a short story as a room – in structure and content.  A novel might be a house (Cloud Street) or a city (Bonfire of the Vanities) or even a country (War and Peace).  But a short story is a small distinct space of compressed energy (The Dead).  The room is created by furnishings and vistas – it’s a bedchamber of a giant insect, a riverbank where some guys are fishing next to a corpse, or a sleepy hollow.  And it’s always dominated by its inhabitants.  My own short story room is often the interior of a speeding car.  The occupants are trapped with themselves until the car stops.  They’re forced to be there and do something, even if it’s the last thing they want – as long as there’s movement.

Of course, that’s a conceit, and a short story can actually be anything.  Joyce Carol Oates said that ‘any short story can become a novel, and any novel can be converted back into a short story or into a poem.’

And my favourite, Brokeback Mountain – what kind of space is that?  Is it even a short story, seeing that the action takes place over 20 years and ranges from windswept plains to mountains to little old houses and seedy bars?  Well, it’s not a novel, because I nearly know it by heart, and I could never remember that much of a novel.  I know and love even its dear tiny flaws.  (Why did Annie Proulx write that ‘they deepened their intimacy considerably’ just before the famous sex scene?  The coyness of that line is one of the great mysteries.)  Perhaps the story is the sort of thing Joyce Carol Oates was talking about – a thing that can be stretched.  After all, Ang Lee saw it that way and drew it out to novel-length in his film.  Then again, all the impact of the story emanates, forwards and back in time, from one smelly motel room.  In the instant when a telephone ringing in the next room ‘stop[s] abruptly in mid-peal’, Ennis and Jack decide that they must be together and that it’s impossible – and that moment defines their lives.  So Brokeback Mountain is a story of an emotional explosion in a small room, and we watch the fragments fly from it, stars expanding away from the Big Bang.

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