The powerful intensity of short stories

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So far this summer I’ve been a champion of long books: most notably, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. However, despite the appeal of lengthy novels, I often find myself drawn to short story collections, which have the potential to be just as impactful as a writer’s longer work, frequently providing a more concentrated focus on a specific theme, ideology or emotion. 

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of my favourite short stories. First published in 1892, the story is a seminal feminist text, and among the first of its kind. Under forty pages in length, the tale is written from the perspective of a woman writing a secret diary as her husband diagnoses her with hysteria following the birth of their child. She is secluded to the confines of her bedroom, where she becomes entranced by the eerie yellow wallpaper peeling off the walls. 

Like the protagonist, Gilman similarly suffered from postnatal depression, commanded by her physician to prioritise bed rest and reduce activities such as reading or writing. Utilising the intensity of the short story format, Gilman criticises the oppressive nature of the patriarchal society surrounding her, creating a piece of literature that still proves influential decades later. 

‘Utilising the intensity of the short story format, Gilman criticises the oppressive patriarchal society that surrounds her.’

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories highlights the potential for a short story collection to be just as, if not more, engaging as a complete novel. Inspired by traditional fairy tales and folklore, the collection is truly radical in its ability to subvert expectations of the gothic genre. Published in 1979, the collection encompasses the magic surrealism of Angela Carter’s writing, exploring the latent themes prevalent throughout our favourite fairy tales. 

Having described her fascination with “fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious”, Carter builds on this notion throughout the stories that ensue. Ranging in length, from the longer titular tale to much shorter pieces like ‘The Snow Child’, Carter demonstrates her immense talent by jumping between humorous and intensely dark narratives. Tales like ‘The Erl-King’ and ‘Puss-in-Boots’ are drastically different. However, Carter’s transcendent writing style compacts general themes like nature, marriage and otherness into stories that effectively link to form one complete text.  

Her Body & Other Parties is a new favourite of mine. The debut work of Carmen Maria Machado, the collection explores the complexities of sexuality and gender through an almost surrealist lens. In stories like ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, Machado details a dystopian world in which an epidemic has caused groups of women to turn invisible, with some choosing to stitch themselves into dresses. In many ways mirroring Carter’s writing, Machado’s style is inherently engaging whilst also proving uncomfortable at times. stories such as ‘Difficult at Parties’ and ‘Mothers’ effectively depict universal debates surrounding trauma and motherhood in a seemingly effortless dreamlike style that truly encompasses the unnerving sense of liminality consistent throughout her writing.    

‘Short stories can transform perceptions and broaden literary horizons.’

Despite offering a completely different experience to that of longer-form texts, short stories can similarly transform perceptions and broaden literary horizons. Beyond their ability to provide necessary writing practice for authors, they also encourage more targeted creativity. If anything, short stories can be harder to write than longer novels, illustrating the challenges many face when it comes to compressing and intensifying complex issues and concepts. 

Image: Laura Kapfer via Unsplash.

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