Yesterday, I went into a bookstore which shall not be named to sign some stock. The proprietor was gracious, but then told me that she hates reading short fiction. I know this is true for a lot of people, but it seemed to be a rather strange thing to tell someone who has just put out a book of short stories, but never mind etiquette. She said when she reads stories, she gets involved with the characters and then feels shortchanged when the story ends, when she doesn't get to live for more time with the characters she's invested in. I've heard this before, and, to some degree, I understand the reaction. And it is not for me to tell people what they should like and what they should not like. There are plenty of forms and genres I don't spend much time on. Taste is taste, pure and simple, and authors have to know that their work will be accepted by some and rejected by others. But as a passionate lover of the short story, I have to take a moment to defend them.
To me, the short story differs from the novel in the way that, say, a watercolor differs from an oil, or a concerto differs from a symphony. Each form is telling a story, but the medium chosen by the artist informs (thank you, Mcluhan) the message. Obviously, an author doesn't choose to write a short story instead of a novel because it's shorter. She writes it because the shorter form suggests something different about the objectives of the narrative than does the longer form. For me, the short story generally conveys an existential situation, rather than a fully-fledged narrative plot. Of course things happen within the pages of a compelling short story, sometimes startling things, reversals of character, of fortune. But for me, the plot serves to explore a state of being. When I read a great short story, I don't imagine that by the story's end I will have been delivered to some wholly new place in a character's life. Instead, I revel in the experience that the story's author has delivered what a story can deliver: she has stopped time and expanded a moment so that I am able to witness the myriad elements that make up any brief experience of human interaction. With the best short story, you come to the end but your mind races forward, propelled by all the story has expertly suggested but not overtly stated. It's magic.