It was Borges, of course, who once said that his head was full of very long novels, but all that he could manage to write were little sketches for those novels-in-the-head — and these briefest of proposals for what would never get written became his great stories. Borges had famously missed the Nobel, but Alice Munro has been luckier — and she has won the prize this year as “master of the contemporary short story”. This is perhaps the first official recognition of this form, although the Americans have been better at acknowledging its importance in modern literature.
There is something the opposite of self- aggrandizing, if not exactly self-deprecatory, about short-story writers. Ms Munro describes herself as writing compulsively but in fits and starts while her children napped. She would feel pressured, in those early years, to make a novel out of her scraps of writing, but was somehow unable to “think that way”. She continues to be haunted by “this bits-and-pieces feeling” — a phrase she picks up from another short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield. The thought of leaving behind, not a corpus of novels, but a lifetime of “scattered stories” still produces its own anxiety in a writer like Ms Munro. But, on a good day, this apparent inability to see “things hanging together any too well” starts to feel like the right way of capturing her understanding of experience — the “disconnected realities” of her own life and of the lives of others. Perhaps, this is one reason why she places herself in a female tradition of writers of the American South: Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers.
Yet, it is important to remember that the short-story form is as much about collections of stories as about the singularity of individual stories. Gathering the stories into implicitly unified, often interconnected, wholes is as much part of the short-story writer’s art as being true to what Ms Munro calls the “bits-and-pieces feeling”. This is not an exclusively female tradition. From Joyce’s Dubliners to Carver’s Cathedral, carefully editing and ordering a clutch of stories into a volume — which then becomes the prototype of a larger structure, like a city or a piece of architecture — becomes the literary equivalent of putting together a suite, song-cycle, or collection of short pieces of music (like preludes or nocturnes), or the making of a photo-book out of a mass of photographs. In fact, the emergence of the modern short story in the Western world is historically parallel to the rise of other fragmentary forms in music and, crucially, to the invention and progress of photography. All of these ‘short’ forms try to grasp not only the momentariness of a moment, but also the disconnected connections within a sequence of such moments that make up the human experience of time.
“Art is long, life is short,” rued the Ancients. “Should art be short, and life be long?” wonder the Moderns. The short story glimmers somewhere in-between.