Short story collections occupy the status of fetish objects in my house. I still get the chills when I thumb through the yarns collected in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology of new wave 60s sci-fi writers, or the postwar masters in the Richard Ford-edited Granta Book of the American Short Story. I could go on. I will go on… Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’, Bierce’s ‘Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’, Poe’s ‘Telltale Heart’, Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome’, Schultz’s ‘The Comet’, Borges’ ‘Death & the Compass’. The diamond hard yarns collected in Mark Richard’s The Ice At the Bottom of the World or TC Boyle’s After the Plague or Mike McCormack’s Getting It In the Head. Just this summer, in an Enniscorthy charity shop, I discovered a mind-boggling 1985 collection called In the Field of Fire, a compendium of sci-fi and fantasy tales set against the background of the Vietnam War. Genre heaven.
Three of this writer’s holy texts, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, take the form of short stories threaded into a longer narrative arc. These are modest-sized books, but the economy, the richness, the pure protein-per-paragraph factor, inspires obsessive re-reading. I love this story-within-a-story construction. I used it in my first novel John the Revelator and developed it further in the one I’ve just completed. To date the only stand-alone short story I’ve published is ‘The Blacklight Ballroom’ for Joseph O’Connor’s collection The News From Dublin (Faber), a Depression allegory set in the near-future, featuring a cameo from a Hank Williams hologram. It’s short even by short story standards, weighing in at something like 1200 words, but it taught me some brutal lessons about compression and economy. A great short story demands the sleight-of-hand skills of a card sharp. At ten or twenty pages, there’s no room for error. No bum notes. No spare words. The form demands painful levels of discipline and self-scrutiny.
I believe the epic novel and the short story/novelette/novella have much in common in terms of scale and ambition. But the middle-ground is more treacherous: middle-brow, middle-class, mid-length, stodgy 375-page novels bogged down with flabby prose and trudging storylines. I’d rather spend ten pages on Mars, or in Hanoi, or inside Edgar’s premature burial shroud. Give us maximalism or minimalism, extreme compression or outrageous digression, but keep us safe from from literary spam.
– Peter Murphy