Between literary journals unable to pay fiction contributors and the rocky year-to-year sales numbers for first-time story collections, the short story appears to be in perpetual jeopardy. “Too often,” writes Adrian Lee of Maclean’s, “short fiction is dismissed as a staging ground for the ultimate goal: writing a novel.” Simultaneously, it is indeed the novel that literary and commercial focus seems to center on.
Whether the short story is withering or not, the questions this uncertainty raises regarding the value of short fiction are indeed rational. Why shouldn’t an author just craft a novel — a work more marketable, more ubiquitously accessible — instead? Yes, short fiction has been effective, but why not stretch it into something more impactful?
Recently, I came across these questions myself while reading “Modal Window” by Janet Towle. The story, aptly named and finished in 20 minutes of reading, circumvents the closure and wholeness usually implicit in fiction. Ten stories in one, “Modal Window” hurries through glimpses into 11 narratives in a span of 12 pages — a gay man’s place at a Christmas family gathering, a young woman moored by a broken car, a courtyard on a college campus, a street-performer covered in metallic paint. After a brief immersion into these spaces, readers are met repeatedly with the same line — “This is a modal window” — at which the scene is torn away, moving to the next narrative.
This function of brevity in “Modal Window” is a familiar one to short fiction enthusiasts. Brief excavations into a story are, after all, implicit in the descriptor: short fiction. “Modal Window” seems to challenge the fallibility of short fiction with its newly transitory narratives. Stuck in all of the 10 storylines Towle created, I began to wonder the effect that “Modal Window” would have had it been stretched into a novel. And the answer is — wholly in defense of the short story — not nearly enough of one.
The “short” feature of short fiction may seem to be a limiting factor, but its conciseness instead provides constructive and unique benefits. Indeed, while the novel brags tangible length, breadth may not quite articulate intimacy. Brief fiction leaves less space for detail, language and, most importantly, less space for readers to know a character. Unlike longer works, where readers are allocated hundreds of pages to cognize and identify with a narrative, we are left with a relatively small period to do so in short stories.
This format creates a unique flavor of intimacy. With such limited resources, readers are forced to lean into the space of a story, to a greater extent than they would with a novel, grappling for an understanding within the environment they are given. In reading Towle’s work, this act became conscious for me: Expecting the abrupt end of each narrative, I was left saturated with each section’s characters’ emotions, yearning to understand and feel with them before they were taken from me.
Though the success of short fiction extends beyond this required closeness, the short story has been coveted for hundreds of years because it can impact us in ways other mediums can’t. In the days after reading “Modal Window,” I found myself repeatedly contemplating the scenarios I had been immersed in — such as that of friends, reunited and camping, or that of a woman desperate to make money through her performance art. More than immersed, I was subconsciously determined to comprehend these characters. Given such a brief but emotionally drenched glimpse into the world of others altered my worldview in the following days. Whereas a novel often gives readers a more complete look at scenarios, the reduced space of a short story remains open-ended, requiring immense contemplation before and after reading.
This tangible impact points to the fact that short fiction has the ability to weigh more on readers than other mediums within art and knowledge. Short stories offer more personal indulgances than mere facts can: The multitude of perspectives and emotional devices that stories offer us create impacts stronger than non-narrative facts do. And a lack of a complete backstory or prior knowledge — such as that provided with anecdotal biopics or longer works — allows readers to intuit the story themselves. Removed from real-world personhood, from history, from tangible logic, these snippets allow us to view the world from a different sort of fact — one containing all of the devices of art, but one allowing us to understand them entirely as ourselves. We more easily internalize short fiction.
Thus, in the contemporary fight for literary significance, to those questioning the constriction of the “short” aspect of short fiction: Its length provides its own set of benefits to readers. The cosmos of a short story could not be stretched to a novel. With such extrapolation, we would lose the intimacy bite-sized fiction requires, the intrapersonal view it extends and the post-reading contemplation it urges. As a novel, “Modal Window” would have given me a near-complete view of personhood in each scene, disregarding the closeness and yearning that readers are allowed as a result.
Like all literature, this short prose, which is accessible in a 15 minute sit-down in a coffee house, extends to readers delicate cross-sections of the world we live in, but cannot experience. The short story is an intrinsic part of the literary world. If the humanities teach us how to live and die, then it is the intimacy and perspective of short fiction that can teach us how to do so in relation to other people.