Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Good, the Short and the Scary

There is a widely-believed myth that short stories are kind of easy-for-idiots versions of novels - easier and faster to write because they are shorter in length. A frequently suggested solution to my writer's block is to take a step back and write short stories for a while, until I refine my 'voice' and can get into the serious business of writing novels.

I'm not a short story writer. The short story is a particular aesthetic form with conventions, cliches and genius-requirements of its very own, quite distinct from novel writing. An easy way to distinguish the two is that short stories tend to be denser in meaning, and less dense than poetry. Bottom line: it takes a particular kind of writer to master the short story.

Of course I believe that we no more really live in an age that appreciates the short story any more than we are in an age in which poetry is the literature of the day. I wonder why that is. Even people who read widely tend to avoid anthologies of short stories.

When I was in school and frequented libraries I loved one kind of short story, the horror. I devoured anthologies of short horror tales, some classics like the American gothics of Edgar Allen Poe, but more often the more modern tales. I think horror tales are particularly suited to the short story form. Not because they ought to finish quickly, but because there is a kind of formula to the effect of the uncanny that roughly follows the strict, tricky limitations of the short story. When I read horror anthologies I read them for their cleverness, not for their scariness. Many good ones were written for children. Some excellent ones even made me laugh. The best horror tales made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with sheer delight in their ingenuity, their wit and elegance, and these are are qualities highly important for good short story writing. They require a great deal of intelligence to enable one to work with creativity and style within the strictness of the form.