Keeping it Short

But Not Too Short

It is the short story, not the novel, that is the form of art best fitted to politics.

Novels show us a world. However dystopian or dire, however pitifully exhausting, they are worlds nonetheless and inspire the comfort of stability through their existence as such. This is the bizarre sensation one experiences after reading someone like Rohinton Mistry or Margaret Atwood. The trickiest part of the novel is its end, because once you create whole characters it is nearly impossible to kill them completely. This is why fantasy authors write endless series of novels, to avoid an end to something that is pleasing. Something always persists after the end. The world of the novel might flatten our souls, but by its convincing totality it breeds contagious hope. Hope is always a blurring of one's sense of time. A sense most prized by the political being.

This is not to say that the novel has no political function, for it is indisputable that novels have shaped human history. The clearest example is perhaps that of the political autobiography, which is as much a work of poetry as Orwell or Cervantes. Political autobiographies have been enormously influential in hosting weird little nobodies to the throne of power. There's really no sign of that particular trend abating in our day.

The novel tends to flourish in times of relative stability, when ideas have slightly settled, not in the instant of crisis itself. The instant belongs to the short story. Just as we are drawn to leer at politics through the tattered tent of political order, we are drawn to the short story in times of profound urgency.

Where the novel shows a world in its entirety, the world of the short story is perpetually incomplete. The short story is like a broken fragment of a mirror, reflecting the world back at us as it really appears.

It is the short story that causes the most trouble, that provides the most cutting examination of the human condition. The short story expresses most acutely the harsh economy of time, the pressing urgency of existence. Its characters are taken apart before our eyes, like freshly fallen game.

Stories that are short transmute best into anecdotes. Anecdotes are social currency, conversational wells with a deep source. A good three quarters of what we say in our lifetimes consists of stories. These stories shape our living and breathing, and so to gain access to this civilizational spring is to prod at the clay of History.

Perhaps, crisis or not, someone ought to rescue the short story. Dredge it up from the decadence of particularity, heave it from a sea of "-ism's," hammer off the barnacles. This kind of short story is not some moss-covered stepping stone to the novelist's laurels. It is a monument, two tons of immovable granite, a landmark from which to get one's bearings. No longer the second rate safe haven of writers with neither spleen nor bile to face the shadow of a serious undertaking.

If Salinger had written Nine Stories today, it probably wouldn't be taken very seriously. It would probably be critically dismissed; juvenile rock literature, edgy airplane reading for the MTV generation. You might even read a gushing review of it on a site like mine, or something like this one here.

The short story has a proclivity for being ahead of its time. This is an illusion formed in retrospect. It appears to be ahead of its time by breathing its spirit into the time that follows. It would ring of vulgar truism to say that short stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies, as if there could be a prophecy of any other kind.

It is this eerily numinous quality of writing that all short stories hold in common. The short story writer often lurks in the background, in shaded obscurity, while the work stands forth on its own legs. It is often rife with mystery, with unanswered questions, with mixed messages. The effect on the reader is not one of reassurance but of agitation; it instills restlessness.

It is a revealing facet of our age that we neglect the short story, attempt to defang it and make it a house pet. We ridicule its spiritedness with mock seriousness and heaped absurdity, just as we manage a child with a temper.

You could say that it doesn't matter, that print itself is on the way out. It's tempting to assent to this view. It seems quite defensible to say that print is already consigned to the fading afterglow of its heyday, a kind of eternal return with dwindling fuel. Like the mighty vinyl. There might be ripples of resurgence, but never again the grandeur, the influence. I guess we shall see.

Arguably the medium is not really the central concern at all. You could see an echo of what I have described in the current rise of television. We are witnessing the death throes of the Great Film; we have saturated our cultural furrows with every possible meaningful epic. We lie exhausted like dogs beneath a banquet table. No more. A plate of mint, please.

Television is experiencing a sophistication, an opportunity to be the arbiter of culture. It has begun to reach for the sculptor's tools in earnest. As traditional networks splinter and reform, television will dabble in extremes, dissecting the richness of human experience until it inevitably hits a nerve. What this might look like in substantial terms is a matter of pure conjecture. I must say that the idea of a future shaped by Jersey Shore, or one with Steve Buscemi as any kind of positive role model is a bit disconcerting.

One thing is probably a safe bet: in the end we'll likely be a whole lot dumber.