Zsuzsi Gartner tells a story. A group of neighbours adopt Chinese babies. Only girls. One per family. The parents – white Vancouver suburbanites – take up calligraphy and acupuncture. They Feng Shui their homes. They plant bamboo that turns invasive and spreads out of control. They dress their daughters in identical brown worker pants and conduct group exercises in the middle of the street. They bind the girls’ feet.
The premise is preposterous and the story is thoroughly engrossing, entirely witty. And it works because the drama begins and ends in 11 pages. This is the magic of the short story.
Short stories are an endangered species. Valiant publishers still print collections. And those collections punch above their weight when it comes to awards. But have a look at bestseller lists. Take a poll at your next party. What are people reading? It’s not short stories.
And that’s a shame. Because out here in the Wild West, the hinterland where short fiction has been relegated (take a left past poetry; you can’t miss it), inventive things are happening.
While no one’s paying attention, maybe because no one’s paying attention, writers, like mad scientists, are conducting experiments. Lights are flashing. Concoctions are exploding. And if you’re not a part of this, if you’re not watching over their shoulders, breath held to see what emerges from the cauldron, dear Reader, you are missing out.
Second person narration. The collective chorus of the first person plural. Stories told entirely in sentence fragments. Unconventional devices are rare in long form for a reason. The absurd, the quirky, worlds that skew just off centre, these imaginative leaps are easier to land in the confined space of 20 pages. But stretch that leap over one hundred thousand words and you risk a reader’s patience.
Short stories are playful. And they are also more diverse. If you’ve ever wondered: where are the dark-skinned characters? The lesbian politicians, the transgender parents, the wheelchairs and hijabs? They are alive and thriving in the wilds of short fiction. Emerging writers are spicing their work with more colour. And literary magazines are championing diversity, making space for queer characters, for differently abled bodies, for kimchi and saris. Mad scientists!
But. Set all this aside. The fundamentals still apply. Character, plot, narration, description, all of it must collude to carry the reader away, into a story they don’t want to leave. In short fiction, all of this is achieved with economy. Characters are sketched in a few brush strokes. The car chase comes without preamble. This fiction is 100 per cent fat free.
A well written short story is a perfect macaroon. An espresso you enjoy standing at the bar. A 10-minute ab workout.
It’s a lay-over between two novels. A palate cleanser before a screenplay. The single toe you dip in the ocean of an unfamiliar genre.
Here is what the doctor ordered: one story a day. That’s it. Resist the urge to gorge. Read a story in the morning and allow it to stay with you, percolating, for the rest of the day.
Go safe with the Journey Prize Stories. Or branch out. Try an unknown writer. Or something experimental. Read a historical fiction. Magical
realism. An international author. Read local. Pick up a copy of Fiddlehead or Riddle Fence. Listen to a fiction podcast. What have you got to lose? Ten minutes.