I’ve mentioned before that I like short fiction as well as novels (gasp, I know), and today I’m going to consider why. I’ve recently been . . . erm, enjoying (not sure if that’s the right word) . . . Paul’s Case, which is in The Troll Garden by Willa Cather, and A Clean, Well Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway. Both stories are vastly different, but there are some similarities they seem to share with all my favorite short stories (like Marquez’s previously discussed A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings).
[Note: This is kind of a confusing post if you haven’t read both pieces I’m talking about here, but feel free to read on even if you aren’t so interested in reading semi-antiquated (but still fantastic) short fiction. If that is the kind of thing that’s right up your alley, I’d suggest you hunt down the stories either on the web or in print and read them at some point, because though strange and slightly menacing, they were very good. Carry on as you wish.]
First off, they are all told in a very contrite narration. There’s little emotion in the description, but the emotions of the characters are brought out by recounting the small actions, which we don’t see as much in novel form. There must be detail in a short story, but it must help the reader understand something because there isn’t enough room for the author to add text for both purposes like there is in a novel.
Another thing I love about short fiction (though it’s not so much a similarity) is the way it brings out the creativeness of an author in their storytelling mechanisms. For instance, with the prose I read today, in A Clean, Well Lighted Place Hemingway uses a ratio of about 1:1 of dialogue to narration, which works well in that it gives personality to each character without having to outright express it, and gives off a slight monotony when the characters speak in one sentence exchanges, which added a lot to the piece in my opinion. In Paul’s Case, by Cather, I don’t think there was a single line of dialogue, but so much emotion was conveyed through the narration I didn’t miss it a bit. Instead of dialogue, Cather opted for descriptions of Paul’s movements, especially in the first part, where we’re still trying to figure out who he is and what’s happening in his world. She describes him fidgeting with a button or clacking his teeth, and those movements give us a lot of insight, just as it would if we were watching someone jiggle their leg in court or sit back assuredly in the real world. Cather also spends an unusual amount of her approximately 15 page piece describing Paul’s clothes, which initially seems really weird to the reader but by the end has been put to good use as a storytelling device. Clothes and appearances are very important to Paul, and in describing his appearance we are given a window into the world Cather has created so well in such few words.
I think what I really love about short fiction is the way it challenges the author to write well, but also challenges the reader to read as actively as possible to fill the holes the author’s left. In a novel, there are far less of these gaps left to the reader to fill in, but with short fiction there isn’t enough room to explain everything, and that lets the story become even more the reader’s as they draw their own conclusions and build their own ideas into the plot. It’s such a cool way to show just a little window into a world and have the reader imagine what they can’t see behind the sill. Also, something about the previously discussed almost stilted voice most short stories are narrated in really appeals to me.
Congrats on making it to Friday,