Stephen King on the Short Story

R.T. provides this link to a interesting comment by Stephen King on why people don't read short stories any more.

For me the short story is an amazing art form.  All too often when I am reading novels, I think of Pascal's famous statement to the effect of , "Had I more time I would have written a shorter letter."  I remember completing The Witches of Eastwick and thinking "There was a really good short story buried somewhere in all that."  And so with many authors whose ability to talk far exceeds the matter about which they have to talk (myself included).

The skills required for a short story are prodigious, one must straddle the line of concision between poetry and novel (although Lydia Davis et al. are presently at blurring that line even further.)  One must have supreme command of what it is one is about in a short story.  There is no line, no word even that can be wasted.  I recall reading a few of Raymond Carver's short stories and thinking how luminous, whole, and true they were.  I recently read Jay McInerny's collected short fiction and was astonished by how much better it was than some of the novels.

The sort story cannot carry you as long or as far as a novel, in many cases.  But then one turns to stories such as "The Dead," "The Lottery," "Turn of the Screw," "A & P," "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," "Hand-Carved Coffins," "The Necklace," "Lady and Her Pet Dog," and others too numerous to count and realize that they have taken me much, much further than many a novel.

A short story is a powerful conveyance, but the sensibility for reading it is quite differently focused and located than that for reading a novel.  And sometimes it, like poetry, is more alienating than inviting--its constraints and strictures more corset-like than many would find comfortable.

But for me, I often use Short Stories as a "way in" to authors whose longer work I have avoided or is not familiar to me.  I can read a short story and tell in a very short time whether this is a voice, a person, a sensibility, I can enjoy, or at least endure for a longer spell.


  1. My rapidly shrinking attention span (which perhaps has something to do with aging) makes me a devoted reader of short stories, and novels often require more of me than my mind can lately muster. Perhaps someday--as the attention span shrinks even further--I will be found reading the same short story over and over again (without having remembered that I had read it previously). Given that scenario, I wonder which short story it should be. Perhaps it would be Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." Or it might be Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." Or--more likely--it will be one of Flannery O'Connor's late (final) stories. Do you have one short story that stands out above all others?

  2. Dear R.T.

    The two that you mention are certainly contenders. But it probably comes as no surprise that two of my contenders would be from Joyce and one of them is utterly inexplicable to me, but it draws me back again and again--"Araby," the other, "The Dead" really doesn't require explanation. However, in addition to those Flannery O'Connor's "Parker's Back," and "Good Country People," Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple," James's "Altar of the Dead," A Raymond Carver story, the title of which eludes me right now but about a young man playing hooky and catching a very strange fish, I also like "Kew Gardens" (Virginia Woolf), "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (Charlotte Perkins Gilman), "The Country of Pointed Firs" (Sylvia Orne Jewett) "Fall of the House of Usher" (Poe) and its companion piece by Ray Bradbury "Usher II" and while on Bradbury why not "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," "Boys, Grow Mushrooms in Your Own Cellar" and "Ylla" (amongst the rest of the amazing Martian Chronicles. And we mustn't forget the great pulp masters "Whisperer in the Darkness" or "The Colour out of Space" and all of the Xothique and Poseidonis stories by CA Smith.

    But you asked for one and that one may be Flannery O'Connor again and again the title eludes me, but the story involves a tractor--I'm sure you know the one that I mean. I believe that is the one that ends with the scene of the glorious, beautiful sunset.

    But I don't know. I am drawn time and again to the same core of stories, but as my circle of stories expands, with some of the more recent writers--my admiration takes them in as well.

    I guess I didn't really answer the question--but I do know that if you asked me and I were to respond spur of the moment, without this much time to tease out every possibility, the title that would leap to my lips is "The Dead."




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