Short Stories

Almost all the books mentioned are available in a Lyon 2 library...

Introduction : the short story as a genre

This page was originally organized around a Villa Gillet event,   An Evening of Short Stories / Histoires Courtes

At the Salon du Livre the winners of national CROUS short story competition will be read out.

Like that evening, the LAC lecture (and these notes) address the question of the short story as a genre. There are three basic questions we need to answer:

1 - Is the short story merely a sawn-off novel or is it a separate genre?
2 - If it is a separate genre, what are its distinguishing features?
3 - Is there, as the VG title implies, a difference between the Anglo-American "short story" and the French "nouvelle"?

I Towards a definition
The common-or-garden definition is “short prose narrative”, ie the short story is fictional, not versified, and not long. It must at least be shorter than the novel.More precisely, it is  situated somewhere between “flash fiction” and the “novella”.

Flash fiction is less than 2000 words.
cf. Ernest Hemingway's 6-word story:  "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."
Read, for example, Phil Gardner's "An Axe to Grind"

The novella  is composed of between 20,000 and 40,000 words (50-100 pp at 400 words per page)
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)
- Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898)
- George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)
- Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall (1979)

The classic definition of the "prose tale" was given by Edgar Allan Poe in an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, where he defines what we now call the short story as a “short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal”. Poe argues that the “prose tale” is the finest of prose forms for 4 reasons:

Other critical positions

Raymond Carver, "Principles of a Story" in Prospect, September 2005, republished on the Story website

Frank O'Connor ("the Irish Chekhov"), in The Lonely Voice, his manifesto for the short story form, observed that "always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo - Christ, Socrates, Moses... As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel - an intense awareness of human loneliness."

II Some empirical observations

A. Its origins as an oral art

1.The short story comes from oral story-telling traditions
Folk-tales, bedtime stories can give the modern short story a deceptively simple, childlike quality or an element of pastiche.

Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888)
Rabindranth Tagore, "The Last Bargain" (1918)
Roald Dahl, Tales of the Unexpected (1979)
James Finn Garner, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, a fairy-tale world where trolls are "dirt-accomplished and odour-enhanced", witches are "kindness-impaired," and Cinderella wears a gown "woven of silk stolen from unsuspecting silkworms."

2. Fireside tales and winter’s tales contributed to the  making of the 19th c. English Christmas.
cf. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843).

  (October 2006): Alberto Manguel’s The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories includes "The Turkey Season" by Alice Munro, "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor" by John Cheever; "Crèche" by Richard Ford; "Horatio's Trick" by Ann Beattie; "Another Christmas" by William Trevor; "The Leaf-Sweeper" by Muriel Spark and “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” by Paul Auster.

3. Ghost stories are told only in the form of the short story. It also seems to be well-suited to a certain form of the Gothic.

Charles Dickens, "The Signal-Man"
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James
Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

4. Tales can form a series through the device of the frame tale
cf. Boccaccio's Decameron, The 1001 Nights

G.K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades (1905)
William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses (1942)
V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (1959)
Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozsha Baag (1992)
Sia Fiegel, Where We Once Belonged (2000)

B. Its origins as a moral tale
cf.  fables, Bible-stories, parables, which point to a moral, and their (often ironic) modern counterparts

James Thurber, Fables for our Time (1940)
Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)
Walter Moseley, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (2003)

C. Short stories can be miniature versions of major genres of fiction

1. Science fiction

H.G Wells “The Country of the Blind
J.G. Ballard, The Terminal Beach (1964)
Tom Shippey (ed.), The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (2003)

2. Detective fiction

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
G.K. Chesterton, The Father Brown Stories
Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
Ruth Rendell, The Fallen Curtain and Other Stories (1976)
3. Travel-writing
Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales of the Hills (1888)
R.K. Narayan, Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories
Somerset Maugham, The Complete Short Stories
Nadine Gordimer, Loot and Other Stories (2003)
You can hear Nadine Gordimer reading "Loot" on the Nobel prize website
Alice Munro, Selected Stories (1996), considered by many to be the finest living short story writer in English

 D. Its affinity with other genres

1. Film:

Arthur C. Clarke’s“The Sentinel” > Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
Clark has been quoted as saying that comparing the two was like comparing an acorn to the oak-tree that grew from it.
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” > 1975 film of the same title by John Huston
The story that says it all about the essentially fictional base of Empire
Selection of Raymond Carver's  stories > Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993) > film tie-in
James Joyce’s “The Dead” > 1987 John Huston film of the same title (Les Gens de Dublin in French)
Washington Irvine's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" > Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow (1999)
(This links up with your thinking about cinematographic writing in LAM, and some of you might use film as a way into the short story genre)

2. Narrative poetry

Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto
Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol
Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, 1940. .

... or just pure, gorgeous poetry in Virginia Woolf's "Blue and Green"

3. Opera

Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” (but this is a novella) > 1951 opera by Benjamin Britten
III The seduction of the short story

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety ...

Returning to Poe's other three points, we might ask ourselves:

A. How does the short story command the reader's attention so effectively?

1. The highly economical use of words means that short stories can have some wonderful titles and opening lines.:

"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1916)
One of my favourites is Grace Paley's beginning of "An Interest in Life" :
"My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly. "
As for titles, see Scott Fitzgerald's "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz"

2. "The twist in the tale" : by using deceptively simple plots, short story writers lead us by the nose ... often to an unexpected destination. The reader is literally and metaphorically "brought up short". In an interesting variation on the Hansel and Gretel story, readers have to go back to the beginning and retrace their steps, this time picking up the clues to meaning which the author has ingenuously scattered as he led us along.

cf. the phrase "an  O. Henry ending"

3. Many short stories have a hauntingly elusive quality, which leaves them endlessly open to new meaning. This is true of all writing, of course, but the short story plays with this aspect of writing. Saki's "The Open Window" (see CM handout) has this pleasing allegorical quality. It's surely what makes "Bartleby the Scrivener" a masterpiece.

B. What are the advantages and disadvantages of so condensed a form?

1. Readers often have to work overtime to unpack the meaning.

2. That labour is rewarded by the satisfaction afforded by all puzzle-solving. Advantages of narrative restraint.

C. What truths are logically uncovered by the short story form?

1. Short stories often let us share the author's brief philosophical, psychological or sociological  insights into life, sudden recognitions or what James Joyce called moments of "epiphany".

2. "Brevity is the soul of wit". The short story form reflects the essentially ephemeral nature of  life.

Conclusion : suggestions for further reading

Some landmark collections :

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice-Told Tales (1837)
Sample stories : "Wakefield" and "The Minister's Black Veil"
Edgar Allen Poe, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840)
Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales (1856)
Sample stories : "Beneto Cereno" and "Bartleby the Scrivener"
Ambrose Bierce, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)
Sample story : "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Thomas Hardy, Wessex Tales (1888)
Stephen Crane, The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898)
Jack London, Moon-Face and Other Stories (1906)
E.M. Forster,  The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911)
Sample story : "The Story of the Siren"
'Saki', Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914)
Sample story from The Chronicles of Clovis : "Tobermory"
Sherwood Anderson, Triumph of the Egg, and Other Stories (1921)
Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922)
Read "Sun and Moon" from Bliss and Other Stories (1920)
D.H. Lawrence, The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories (1928)
Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936)

A Few Contemporary Short Story Writers
Jayne Anne Philips  (US)
Richard Ford (US)
Patricia Grace  (Maori writer)
Mavis Gallant (Canadian writer who lives in Paris)
Helen Simpson  (UK)
Russell Banks (US)

A Few Exotic Anthologies in a Library Near You
The Heinemann Book of South African Short Stories (1994)
The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories (1994)
The Penguin Book of Best Australian Short Stories (1998)
The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories (1999)

You might like to compare these with short stories from other traditions: the Russian (Gogol, Turgenev,Chekov, Tolstoy ...), the Spanish (Borges...)
and the  French (Mérimée, Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant …)

A number of friends from the Language Faculty contributed suggestions for this page. Students' recommendations would be most welcome.

Send them to

Nouvelles/Cuentos/ Short Stories is a trilingual resource page from the Université de Laval
Literature, Arts and Medecine Database (?!) offers an excellent choice of stories online
Classic Short Stories offers a large selection of golden oldies
Free Speculative Fiction Online offers some recent science fiction stories
Story, a website campaigning for the short story, offers the delight of reading Jackie Kay's "Gull"
You can download podcasts of short stories chosen by well-known writers from the archives of the New Yorker

Footnote : The Villa Gillet setting of the debate on the short story makes me think of Somerset Maugham’s 1941 novella Up at the Villa, recently made into a film ...


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