The short story emerged in a blitzkrieg of 19th-century magazine publishing, reached its apotheosis with Chekhov, and became one of the great 20th-century art forms. William Boyd reveals his taxonomy of the short story, and assesses the state of the British formby William Boyd / July 10, 2006 / Leave a comment
Chekhov (centre, reading) is widely acknowledged as the greatest ever short story writer
Let us begin at a notional beginning. I have an image in my head of a band of Neanderthals (or some similar troupe of humanoids) hunkered round the fire at the cave-mouth as the night is drawing in. One of them says, spontaneously: “You’ll never believe what happened to me today.” Gnawed bones are tossed aside, children are quietened and the tribe gives the storyteller its full attention. The anecdote, the fond reminiscence, the protracted joke, the pointed recollection are surely the genesis of the short stories we write and read today. You could argue that storytelling in one form or other is hardwired into our human discourse as if—as soon as our sense of time past and time future evolved in our awakening consciousnesses—we became aware we could shape the telling of our personal histories and imagine possibilities that would enchant, terrify, enthral, admonish, titillate—and the rest of the gamut of emotions that attend a compelling story.
All this is somewhat fanciful and unproveable, I know, but it strikes me that something of this order must explain the strange power of short fiction. The short form is, conceivably, more natural to us than longer forms: the anecdote that lasts several hours is going to find its listeners drifting away pretty soon. The stories we tell to each other are short, or shortish, and they are shaped. Consider what happens in the telling of a tale: even the most unprofessional anecdotalist will find him or herself having to select some details and omit others, emphasise certain events and ignore the irrelevant or time-consuming, elide, speed up, slow down, describe key characters but not all, in order to head—ideally—towards a denouement of some sort. A whole editing process is engaged, almost unconsciously, of choosing, clarifying, enhancing and inventing. A convincing lie is, in its own way, a tiny, perfect narrative. The well-told story seems to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.
If all this is true then why has it taken so long for the short story, as a literary form, to evolve? After all, the cultural history of the published short…