The Experience of Fiction

In discussing writing fiction, I will focus on the short story, but much of what I will say will apply to writing other kinds of fiction, and very often true for other forms of narrative, even if they are factually true (as in with memoir or creative non-fiction).   How a short story differs from other kinds of fictions, from novels or plays, from monologues or fables or fairy tales, is a matter of much discussion among writers, critics, and teachers. It really is not too cynical or lazy to say that a short story is a story that is short. What we mean by story can be described as a series of events with characters in conflict somewhere in time and place (setting), that the events are communicated in language and in prose (as opposed say to a narrative painting or poem or song), and that the events are told from a point of view with an authorial attitude or perspective (point of view and tone).   What we mean by short, we can rely on Edgar Allan Poe’s definition that said the story could be read in about an hour or two.

Understanding why people tell stories is one way to understand what fiction is and can do.   One way to put the question is what can creating fiction do that other means of communicating can’t do.   Rhetoricians often look at the purposes of communication as being to express oneself, to entertain others, to inform others, and to persuade others.   These critics then say the main purpose of literature is to entertain others. And when one looks at a world of communication–varying as it does from laundry lists, diaries, manifestos, dictionaries, advertisements for floor wax–saying that the purpose of a writer of short story is to entertain makes a certain amount of sense. But common sense tells us that the purposes of literature in general and short fiction in particular in quite various, in fact, can serve any of the four purposes above. Still almost every reader will in the long run demand from a work of short fiction one thing–that it entertain.

How are we entertained. That of course depends on who we are. But however we might answer the question, one thing is common–that we are moved, that the story provokes emotions in us. In this basic way, a short story, like any work of art, like any entertainment–from carnival rides, to dinner parties, to computer games, to sports–must grab us on an emotional level.   The later sections of this chapter detail with specific techniques or elements that writers use to grab us emotionally: plots, characters, conflicts, settings, language, tone. All of these are ways that writers entertain us–telling a intriguing plot; writing interesting, likeable, despicable, fun, horrible characters; placing the story in times and places that we care about, want to know more about, can immerse ourselves in; and using language that is beautiful, emotionally disturbing, challenging, simple or rich. Certainly, the worse charge that can be made about an entertainment, including a short story, is that it is boring and forgettable.   Having said that, we need to think about what is it that readers find compelling.

Here again we can learn something from the rhetoricians. Some of us are entertained by people’s personal stories; we like stories where we think the writer and certainly the narrator want to express themselves, telling us who they are, what they experienced, how they felt about that experience. In my anthology I included examples of this kind of work–“A&P,” “Loverboy,” “The Party down at the Square,” “Rape Fantasies,” “I Want to Know Why,” “A Scrap of Time.” In so many stories, the narrator entertains us because we feel that we identify with the character telling the story, the one who experienced the events in the story. We feel, like any good listener, that the character is personally talking to us.

Readers of short stories also enjoy learning how to make their lives better.  Writers of short stories, therefore, can attempt to persuade. The writer may tell us a story about how terribly someone is treated or about habits and beliefs that have bad consequences.   Some of us like this kind of literature, literature that is political or sociological in nature. A famous example in literary history is Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about meat packing plants. After publication of the novel, new health laws were passed to protect the public.   But a writer of short stories doesn’t necessarily desire to effect so great a change in society, but perhaps simply wants to change the public one story, one reader, at a time. One might suspect at the end of “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” that Mary Gaitskill wants the reader to consider how he or she treats his or her children.   It seems likely that in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,”  Richard Wright wants to argue that African Americans in the South are mistreated and exploited and that society must change? In “The Death of Ivan Illych,” it is probably save to believe that Leo Tolstoy wants his readers to change their lives, to abandon their love of status and money, and to live a naturally moral and simple Christian life?

Readers also find pleasure when writers attempt  to inform them. Certainly this is one of the important reasons any one reads manuals, textbooks, travel book, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and so on. In basic ways, stories inform us how people can behave; they teach us something about human psychology.   In reading a story, we can recognize ourselves and thus understand ourselves a bit better, or we recognize others and better understand them. Do any of us men recognize ourselves as close-minded to women’s opinions as in the story “A Jury of Her Peers”?   Or by reading Hemingway’s “A Soldier’s Home,”might we, male of female, better empathize with the emotional difficulties soldiers, suddenly back in our hometown where no one has seen what they have seen.  In the same way, in some stories we learn about places we have never been or moments in history we may not have experienced. Steinbeck gives us the experience of living in the Salinas Valley; Mary Lavin introduces us to the home life of the Irish working class; Bessie Head dramatizes the myths of rural South Africans; Hanif Kureishi portrays the lives of immigrant Pakistanies in London. Lastly, storytellers make us think about ideas that may not have occurred to us before; in other words, they inform us about the world of ideas.  In “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne illustrates how scientific values can go wrong. Leslie Marmon Silko teaches us about the personal side of cultural conflicts.

Since Edgar Allen Poe reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and helped define the short story, others have been trying to redefine it.   Writers, being creative people who are always looking at new ways to imagine what already exits,  attempt to alterwhat has already occurred and to find new definitions, to shift, expand, and refocus their art.   Still a good starting place at understanding short fiction is to think of it as a prose work that seeks to express an understanding of the nature of life though, as Poe called it,  a contracted unified effect. The number of characters involved is few, the number and kind of conflicts they have are few, the point of view is usually constant and clear, the language is direct and crisp. This said, we must  realize that stories are written often and to great effect that break each and perhaps every aspect of the definition.   But often the effect those stories have depends on their not being what we have come to expect in a story. Like wrestlers bouncing off the ropes of the wrestling rings, writers of theses stories often create power by stretching the boundaries of the story.

Katherine Anne Porter said that in her mind there were four forms of fiction: the short story, long story, short novel, and novel. It is a common sensical and non-academic manner of looking at the forms, but it makes the point that fiction is fiction and that it changes mostly because of length: anything that is in the novel is also in the short story, except there is just less of it.


From Short Fiction:  Classic and Contemporary, 5th ed.  by Lyman Grant (Prentice Hall, 2002)