On the Virtues of Short Stories

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I read with interest Katharine Schwab’s note on the placement of short story dispensers in the city of Grenoble, France. I also read the linked story, which indicated that the idea was to get people to kill time in ways other than looking at a screen. That, undoubtedly, is a noble endeavor. And to offer good writing as an alternative is even better.

But the image of dispensers printing out short stories on a sidewalk to waiting customers also made me think of the following from R.V. Cassill’s and Richard Bausch’s Preface to the 6th edition of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction:

It may be tempting to some to consider short fiction as consumer goods laid out on the counter to be consumed as we consume other offerings of our consumer society. It is anyone’s right to approach it thus, and the delight of consumption may be substantial. I would suggest, however, there are more adventurous metaphors that engage the imagination with more rewards in the quest of each soul for itself.

It is up to the consumer how he or she consumes, of course. Because of the nature of the short story, where much is left unsaid, a high level of attentive reading is usually required. So I hope that more than a few take this beyond just a digital diversion and engage those “adventurous metaphors,” letting the power that only a short story can deliver course through them. Otherwise I think this is a great idea. Hats off to Grenoble!

Also, I do have to speak up concerning Katharine’s statement that the short story is the “slightly pretentious little brother to the novel.” Well, actually I’ll let Steven Millhauser speak for me:

Of course there are virtues associated with smallness. Even the novel will grant as much. Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection. The novel is exhaustive by nature; but the world is inexhaustible; therefore the novel, that Faustian striver, can never attain its desire. The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains. And the short story can even lay claim to a kind of completeness that eludes the novel …

For all you lovers of short prose, Megan just posted about a newly unearthed, unpublished nine-page story from Edith Wharton.