In all my years of writing, this is what I’ve been told about short stories: They are about one thing, they are less complex than novels, and they are more of a precursor than a respected medium.
In all my years of writing, this is what I’ve been told about short stories: They are about one thing, they are less complex than novels, and they are more of a precursor, an uphill bike ride, than a respected medium. These descriptors have always been quite unfortunate given that most of what I read and love are short stories. I can understand where these stereotypes come from, though; there’s only so much detail and characterization a writer can fit into a limited space. The “real world” is messy and has more than one theme, more than one mood, more than a measly eight pages.
I believe, though, that the short story accomplishes the level of complexity that has always been the assumed territory of the novel, just in a different way. In short stories, authors aren’t confined by reader expectations. Because a short story is meant to be read in one sitting, authors can get away with diverging from the classical writing norm in order to try new, sometimes revolutionary, styles. The complexity of life is translated through the barebones of the story rather than explicitly fleshed out in-depth.
That being said, it’s hard to write an adequate short story in the eyes of academics and creative writing majors who are convinced they will one day get published in The New Yorker. There’s been—or at least, I’ve seen—a gross overcompensation for the lack of respect given to the short story. Instead of retaliating by experimenting, writers have been retaliating by not retaliating at all—staying in their comfort zones and churning out pithy ten-pagers that read well, but are unmemorable mere moments after.
The college creative writing classroom has turned into a breeding ground for the pretentious, and those who are burned most often are the unconventional writers—specifically, the unconventional female writers. That’s why reading Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer” and Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with my Father” was such a wonderful experience. Both stories are by female authors who don’t hesitate to experiment, and who don’t shy away from critiquing the system they write in.
Despite writing stories that aren’t “complex” by the standards of the novel, Paley and Moore subvert convention by writing in styles that aren’t usually seen in the short story: Moore by writing in second person, and Paley by having more dialogue than narrative. As a result, both “How to Become a Writer,” and “A Conversation with My Father,” serve to illuminate the issues of the academic short story, as well as the strengths of the short story in comparison to the novel.
When I say Paley and Moore’s stories aren’t complex, I don’t mean it as an insult. I mean that there aren’t in depth descriptions of setting, that there aren’t that many characters in each story, and that the sequence of events in each story is easy to follow. Again, my claims sound disparaging, but they’re only disparaging if you look at the stories through the lens of novel writing. Both “How to Become a Writer” and “A Conversation with My Father” are fewer than six pages in length—there isn’t a place for Moore or Paley to fit in the aforementioned qualities.
In Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father,” the story is a “simple story” in and of itself. It has a concise central emotional focus and a personal element that is key to moving the story forward. The central emotional focus is the problem of describing and dealing with the lives of other human beings, and the personal element is that the narrator is trying to find a way to do just that for her father, both because he asked her to and because he is nearing his “ending.” Paley tells the reader that from the beginning through the title: “A Conversation with My Father.” Literally, that is all that happens in the story—a conversation. There is almost no blocking—Paley’s characters don’t move around the room they’re occupying, and Paley seldom attaches narrative to dialogue tags.
Paley’s entire story is built off of a technique that all authors are warned against; ping-pong dialogue. Ping-pong dialogue is basically just dialogue that rockets back and forth between characters with no narrative in between. It reads quickly, and because of that, the reader has a much harder time finding the story compelling. Paley works this to her advantage, though, and that’s where the unconventionality and subversive nature of her story come in.
The dialogue in her story acts as a red herring at first, distracts the reader from the anguish of what’s happening, but upon analysis, actually proves to make the story more emotional and compelling. Because of the heavy dialogue, the reader has to do all of the work, all of the interpreting, Paley won’t spell anything out in narrative for the reader to grasp onto, and so the conclusions the reader comes to feels wholly their own.
When I was rereading the story, I was most struck by the last page. The pure tragedy in the narrator and the father’s relationship was so easily masked by the amount of dialogue, despite the actual dialogue explicitly expressing the sadness of the situation; this narrator’s father is dying, and there is nothing she can do about it. Her father even says: “As a writer that’s your main trouble. You don’t want to recognize it. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end.”1 He’s forcing his daughter, and the reader, to face the fact that life is tragic, and that it will always be tragic; that no number of open conclusions and quick reading can change that.
Now, upon more rereading, I’m struck by how carefully Grace Paley chose her words. For example, in most of her dialogue tags she uses “said” as a descriptor of speech, but after her father talks about “the end” of a person, Paley changes that pattern: “‘No, Pa,’ I begged him.”2 The use of the word begged instead of said heightens the entire situation, it’s no longer a regular conversation, but rather a daughter pleading for her father to give life one last chance before he dies. Paley pays just as much attention to the word choice in her dialogue as well. She never uses direct addresses—“you”—between the characters until the last line. The father says: “‘How long will it be? Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?’”3 Because this is the last line, the narrator doesn’t get to respond. So, “you,” could be interpreted as a direct address to the reader.
There is complexity in the simplicity, simplicity in the complexity, and a reader can gain so much from the whole of a body of work in one sitting if they just take the time to reread, and if the short story in and of itself is worth rereading! With the novel, a reader is confined in their interpretation because of the sheer length of the work, there isn’t that issue in the short story medium.
Another appeal of the short story is that it’s so small page length wise that it gives the writer freedom stylistically. It’s much harder for a reader to grow bored of the way a story is written if that story is only five pages in length. This is perfectly illustrated in Moore’s “How to Become a Writer,” with her choice to write in second person narration. Critiques of second person are often centered on the claim that overusing second person narration can “feel like a form of harassment from someone trying too hard to get into your head.” The short story completely avoids this problem, and “How to Become a Writer,” is a perfect example of how effective second person narration can be.
Personally, even beyond “How to Become a Writer,” I’m a fan of second person narration. It lends itself to the “sometimes it’s okay to tell and not show,” literary movement which I appreciate. A great sentence that showcases what I mean is when the narrator of “How to Become a Writer,” describes her mom: “She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair.”4 In second person, the writer has more leeway in what they can and can’t do since it’s such an unconventional style. The example above tells the reader exactly how the mother is, then offers a to-the-point explanation of the reason that is both impactful because of rhythm, and impactful because of the strong way Moore ends the sentences. It’s like a one two punch type of deal that wouldn’t fit in other narration.
The straight-forward writing style Moore uses doesn’t work in third or first-person narratives because the usage of “you” and direct addresses are, for lack of a better word, lazy. Sentences like Moore’s feel expository and wrong for the conventional short story specifically because “show don’t tell” is the backbone of classic writing. Moore tells the reader exactly how to feel and what to do throughout the entire story because it’s the nature of second person narration—forcing the reader to relate to the story in some way, shape, or form. For example, on the fourth page, Moore writes: “You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one’s genitals. Don’t dwell on this. It will make you nervous.”5 Moore gives the reader a history within the story, tells the reader what to do with that history, then tells the reader how to feel about the process.
Moore and Paley’s techniques seemingly put them on different sides of the literary spectrum—Paley all show, Moore all tell, but I think they are more connected than they are at odds. Both Paley and Moore are not fans of doing what academics tell them to do, and their stories serve as a way to show those academics that good writing means experimental and unconventional writing. Both Moore and Paley have a distaste for plot especially, and it’s specifically because plot encompasses all that is stringent and wrong with the conventional short story. Or in Moore’s narrator’s words: “Plots are for dead people, pore-face.”
Paley in “A Conversation with My Father” tackles her issues with plot as it has to do with older academics. Paley’s narrator states that plot “take[s] all hope away” and that “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”6 The short story her father, a member of an older generation, wanted his daughter to write was required to have a very standard plot: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion, but the narrator refused to write it in the end and left her character’s life open to change. The reason we as readers know Paley agrees with her narrator, is because she does the exact same thing in her own story—meta, right? Paley leaves off the conclusion to the story long conversation her characters have been having, to show that she too, thinks that “plot” is a restrictive notion.
Moore expresses this same sentiment, and does critique older male figures throughout her story as well, but focuses more on the horrible superiority complex culture that exists in creative writing classes having to do with plot: “In creative writing seminars over the next two years, everyone continues to smoke cigarettes and ask the same things: ‘But does it work? Why should we care about this character? Have you earned this cliché? These seem like important questions.”7 Her narrator brings up how demoralizing her creative writing courses are often, and so the reader, because “How to Become a Writer” is written in second person, has to constantly experience the frustration and inferiority of the narrator. Frustration and inferiority are only felt because the narrator writes unconventional stories and because her classmates invalidate the way she links scenes together. Moore is trying to get the reader to understand how ridiculous the classroom environment is, that all the questions asked only “seem” important, because in actuality they’re not.
There is complexity in simplicity: Moore and Paley both prove that through their styles of writing. Things that are merely glanced over in novels, things like dialogue tags and the amount of times a character has said “you,” change the readers entire understanding of a short story. Second person narration, a form of writing that’s for the most part completely ignored in the novel, finds a home in the four-page shot story. Moore and Paley also prove that there is simplicity in complexity: sometimes, the only solution is to write. When your classmates tell you that your story sucks, when your father is dying and you feel hopeless, when your medium is devalued: Just write.
- Grace Paley, “A Conversation with My Father,” Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Macmillan: 1974), 697.
- Paley, “A Conversation with My Father,” 697.
- Grace Paley, “A Conversation with My Father,” 697.
- Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer,” Self-Help: Stories (Knopf: 1985), 1.
- Moore, “How to Become a Writer, 4.
- Paley, “A Conversation with My Father,” 694.
- Moore, “How to Become a Writer,” 2.