I recently read an article by Russell Smith on the literary form known as the contemporary short story. He called it the “unloved genre”. The article was in recognition of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in literature but I found myself nodding with many of his points on why the form has a somewhat difficult reputation. Novels, for instance, allow the reader time and space to acclimatize, learn the author’s language and get to know the characters in a slow leisurely way. Short stories deny this privilege. They demand intimacy before real knowledge and then, while holding you by the scruff of your neck begging for more, tell you there is no real reward for this honour: life is still the same.
Short stories, at least the kind that appear in literary mags, remind me of those melancholic times of youth where change was so fiercely desired but paradoxically feared. Although not true for me today, back then, the tension of holding the space between those two opposing forces left me emotionally paralyzed. When Thoreau wrote: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them; I imagine he had just read a short story.
That said, I have total respect for those who can write with such clarity and, at times, brutal honesty in 20,000 words or less. Kudos also for those who can sit down and savour them. I tend to speed through short stories in order to get the whole process over with as quick as possible.
The one short story writer I absolutely adore, however, is Jorge Luis Borges. His Labyrinth collection is a favourite with The Immortal being on top of the list. Each time I read it, and I have read it many times, I reach deeper into my soul and pull out yet another facet I didn’t know existed. His surrealism invokes a simultaneous stepping in and out of my life. I get dizzy reading Borges. Best, he invites inner change rather than passively demanding it and helps me celebrate the universal mystery with a slightly off balance wonder.
Yeah, despite how I appreciate and respect Alice Munro, give me Borges any day.