Why short stories?

concept of reading a book is at the desk in the room

SUSAN MIDALIA is director of the 2022 Australian Short Story Festival, which is being held at the Fremantle Arts Centre from Octobver 28 – 30. She is the author of three short story collections: A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars, and a collection of short short fiction (stories under 500 words) called Miniatures.

SHORT stories – fables, anecdotes, myths, satires, mysteries – can be found in every period of history in all cultures. 

So why do stories, whether confronting or compassionate, harrowing or hilarious, continue to matter? 

It’s partly because they help us explain our life-in-time. 

Unlike the novel, which assumes that we experience our life as a series of events that unfolds over time, the short story understands that we also live in moments. 

And far from being superficial and fleeting, moments can be profound and enduring; they can haunt us for years. 

The challenge for a short story writer is to make those moments matter for readers; in the words of the writer Amy Hempel, ‘the trick is to find a tiny way into a huge subject.’ 

A story can use the birth of a child, for example – a common enough experience – to create an epiphanic moment: a realisation that life is both unexpectedly miraculous and intensely precarious. 

A story can use a woman’s discovery of a friend’s betrayal to shatter our belief that life is predictable and safe. 

Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘Bliss’ remains one of the most devastating stories about betrayal that I’ve had the privilege to read. 

Moments, then, can be climaxes, turning points, revelations, experiences of despair, joy or bitter disillusionment. 

In the hands of a skilful short story writer, moments can encourage us to reflect on our own experiences, on our values and beliefs, on how we treat one another, and why. 

Another challenge for a short story writer is stylistic. 

Every word must be the right one, placed in exactly the right order. 

Readers of novels tend to gloss over the occasional stylistic glitch – a cliché, a rhythmically awkward sentence, mangled syntax – and keep reading for the pleasure of the plot and the development of characters. 

By contrast, a short story leaves a writer with nowhere to hide. 

Precise

Readers will more readily notice stylistic lapses and begin to lose faith in the writer’s ability to use language precisely, incisively, inventively. 

I certainly do as a reader! 

I also love writing and reading short stories because they respect the reader’s intelligence. 

Short stories hint, nudge, require us to read between the lines, to infer and deduce. 

Here’s a wonderful example of the art of suggestion, the opening sentence to Claire Keegan’s short story Antarctica: ‘Every time the happily married woman went away, she wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man.’ 

Consider how the heavily stressed words ‘every time’ (instead of ‘whenever’) suggest the strength and persistence of the woman’s desire. 

‘how it would feel’ (instead of ‘what it would be like’) imply her desire not only for sex but for intimate touch, even emotional connection. 

And how might we interpret ‘sleep with’ rather than ‘have sex with’ another man? 

All of this complicates the description of the character as ‘the happily married woman.’ 

Keegan, like all memorable short story writers, offers us the challenge and the pleasure of working out possible meanings for ourselves. 

I’m really pleased that over the past 10 years or so, there’s been a resurgence of interest among both Australian publishers and readers in single-author short story collections. 

I’m also pleased that the Australian Short Story Festival, now in its sixth successful year, has played a role in that revival. 

The organising committee and I would be delighted to have lovers of story, both written and oral, join us at the festival. 

There will be music, story-telling for children, panel discussions, interviews, workshops, book launches and wine. 

You’ll have the opportunity to listen to some great short story writers from around Australia and from overseas, and some of our best from Perth and the regions. 

It’s going to be an intellectually stimulating and fun-filled weekend. And did I mention wine? 

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