14 November 2012

Short Story as Modern Art

            I love a good short story. I have piles of collections by my bedside, collecting dust but always at hand for late night reading. And, like all book lovers, I just love the piles. When a great new collection comes from a writer I admire, I read start to finish, relishing the buffet of characters and story lines that occasionally blend into each other, but make for a great feast.
            I rarely write short stories. Much as I love them, I’m no good at writing them. I get lost in descriptive prose or want to introduce another character in the mix, or I end up with an essay. Perhaps I read them with extra pleasure because I know how hard they are to write.
Some people wonder what has happened to traditional stories. You know the format: a clearly defined opening, a middle, an end, and in between, a crescendo, the denouement, in which the character(s) faces the conflict, learns what is meant to be learned, or is forever altered. Fables and children’s stories are the best examples. However few short stories are written this way anymore. In the post-modernist world of literature, stories meander. Lessons are learned subtly, if at all. The structure, like modern art, begs for interpretation. We read in thrall of language or characters or a question posed, even if never answered.
The dilemmas of modern story telling do not usually have one solution. In fact, there are no absolute truths in modern short stories. At best, a collection of tales weave a mosaic. Junot Diaz’s This is How you Lose Her is a mélange of sex and love and gender battles related by and about one core character who drifts from lover to lover, escapade to escapade. It is the gestalt that offers significance. Joan Wickersham’s lovely first story collection, The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story, connected only in essence, as her characters gallop from 18th century Vienna to modern day in a kaleidoscope of love and loss, all beautifully told, without merely a tiny ribbon on the package.
Alice Munro, queen of the short story in the last century, has a new collection, waiting to be read, and based on previews in The New Yorker, she might be likened to a conceptual artist, inviting the reader to consider the nature of the situation rather than form.
Perhaps the modern short story can be bundled like art movements. Modernism to post-modernism, abstract expressionism to minimalism, surrealism to illusionism. Recent stories might be consider late modernism, where light and space take precedence over imagery? Or is language moving the story towards graphic design – creating a visual image that otherwise has no context? A form of hyper-realism? Post-minimalism?
No matter. Every short story stands on its own and every one has merit. I recently pulled out my well-worn copy of the collected stories of Grace Paley and re-read Mother, among the shortest of short stories, and one that floats, without tether to time or place, rather staccato brush strokes that invoke an abstract image of one life, as well as those left behind. Perhaps a neo-expressionist?
Whatever the form, stories are our verbal canvases and we need them to remind us that in this visual age, while a picture may paint a thousand words, we still need the words.