Writer and anthologist Lorrie Moore has shared an excerpt from her introduction to the upcoming 100th anniversary special 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. In it, she gives a long, and extremely dense explication and justification of the short story form. It’s committed, lucid, and passionate. But it isn’t always beyond challenge.
“It is difficult for a short story to create a completely new world or a social milieu in its entirety or present an entirely unfamiliar one or one unknown to the author—so little time and space—so stories are often leaning on a world that is already there,” she says. Kafka, to name but one example, rather stands in refutation of that. Similar writers, Conrad being another, create worlds within a few pages, not least because the world is not created by detail or realistic setting, but by artistic unity. Poe argued for “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale” as much to create a world as to project an emotion.
Some other writers argue that the short story is simply the novel stripped of all its superfluous excess. Thomas Ligotti, himself a worthy successor to Poe who has to date written only one moderately long work of fiction, has said: “Alfred Hitchcock thought that movies resembled short stories rather than novels. I think that this is a brilliant observation that has largely been ignored by critics and movie fans. The first thing a screenwriter needs to do when adapting a novel is to strip it down to its plot and major characters… movies can potentially deliver an excellent rendering of a short story, specifically that long short story known as a novella. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that screenplays and novellas are in the same range as far as word count is concerned–something around 20-30,000 words.”
That implies that a short tale potentially misses very little. I wouldn’t be too hasty to attribute too many shortcomings to it – besides length, of course.