Time for the Short Story

by Terri Alexander


I used to write travel articles for local and regional magazines and newspapers. My goal was to eventually be published in a national glossy, like Travel + Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler. At the same time that I was sending what felt like hundreds of query letters, the publishing industry was undergoing a dramatic sea change in the transition from print to digital. Some magazines folded and others adopted paid articles with tiny print centered on the top margin that read “advertisement.” The quality of the writing plummeted. Despite my love of travel and travel writing, I eventually tired of reading nationally published authors (a club to which I did not belong) who demanded, via listicle, that I go to some “eponymous” restaurant that “boasts” fresh Kumamoto oysters.

It’s not news that the Internet has changed creative writing. One aspect of it that I find interesting is the ascent of the short story within the context of the Internet. It makes sense – short stories are easily digested on mobile phones and tablets and can be consumed in small doses, such as during a commute or wait. Short stories fit in with the rapid-fire lifestyle of popular culture, as manifested in short attention spans and the premium placed on leisure time. Recently, authors of short story collections have been winning prestigious awards, which bolster the format’s presence alongside the novel and drive sales. Further, the proliferation of literary journals makes short stories increasingly accessible.

When I started my fiction track at the Mountainview Grand MFA program, I believed that my thesis would be a novel. At my first residency, I heard the testimony of several students who started out that way and then switched their thesis to a short story collection. I vowed that wouldn’t be me, but midway through my second semester, that’s exactly what happened. My initial avoidance of the format has evolved into a love affair. Short stories have become a place for me to hone craft elements in approachable, bite-sized pieces, and it’s something that writing programs across the country are emphasizing.

According to Rust Hills in the book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, as recommended by my instructor Mitch Wieland, there are two aspects of the short story that differ from the novel. First, a short story tells of something that happened to someone. This is straightforward and can be applied to any successful short story that comes to mind. The second aspect Hills describes is more daunting: the short story shows a “more harmonious relationship of part to whole, and part to part,” than a novel. In other words, all of the story’s elements must work in concert with one another and do so in a compact space. Accomplishing such a feat makes me think of a gymnast performing a floor exercise – back handspring, twisting somersault, splits, front layout, and then stick the landing in that tiny corner without going outside the lines. Such is the prescription for a successful short story.

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Charles Baxter describes the short story form like this: “The intensity level is higher. These landscapes are more like ones lit by lightning than by candles or incandescent lamps.” This simile makes it easy to see the appeal of the short story in today’s world. The Internet has primed readers’ desire for a certain level of stimulation that cannot be attained within the long stretch of a novel. With the short story, a reader generally does not have the luxury of meeting a character and walking with them over the course of the character’s life. Rather, the reader meets a character for a much shorter time span and knows little of their backstory or future. This echoes the increased mobility that some people adopt through options like telecommuting and earning money online, which in turn translates to truncated relationships. The short story’s aspect of “something happens to someone” fits right in with this phenomenon.

The Internet, relatively new in our culture, has been widely credited with the surge in the popularity and recognition of short stories. When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.” Now that I’m halfway through my third semester at the Mountainview Grand MFA program, I’m glad to have made the switch.