What do you look for in a short story?

Brundle Guy writes:

A couple of months ago a good friend of my family’s passed away. I helped partake in a search through her house for her will, and while we didn’t find the legal papers in question, I did find an unread copy of a collection of posthumously published Kurt Vonnegut short stories. I was told the family friend would have loved for me to have, as I am a huge fan of Vonnegut, so I took the book home as a little memento.

The collection, entitled While Mortals Sleep, has a forward by Dave Eggers in which he describes Vonnegut’s early prose as “mousetrap stories”:

A mousetrap story exists to trick or trap the reader. It moves the reader along through the complex (but not too complex) machinery of the story, until the end, when the cage is sprung and the reader is trapped. And so in this kind of story, the characters, the setting, the plot–they’re more or less a means to an end.

This isn’t to say the characters aren’t real-seeming, aren’t believable or sympathetic or any of the other things we might want characters to be. On the contrary, Vonnegut is masterful at quickly sketching a character who you instantly recognize and are immediately willing to follow. But in the end, their routes are determined by the master mousetrap maker, their fates in service to the larger point.

He contrasts this with the current style of literary short fiction:

We’re now in an age of what might be called photorealistic stories. What we have with most contemporary short stories is a realism, a naturalism, that gives us roughly what a photograph gives us. A gifted photographer will frame reality in a way that seems both real and novel. His or her work will “hold a mirror” to our lives, but in such a way that we see ourselves anew. All art forms attempt this mirror-holding, but photography, and the contemporary short story, are particularly well-designed delivery devices for this aim. And thus the contemporary short story gives us characters who breathe, who seem three-dimensional, who live in real places, have real jobs and struggles and pain. The stories are to a great extent in service to these characters. The characters make realistic moves in their lives, realistic choices, and the outcomes are plausible and perhaps even pedestrian.

Is it just me, or does that read more than a little self-aggrandizing, and a bit like talking down to the fairly recently deceased literary heavyweight whose book you’re introducing? Elsewhere in the intro Eggers notes that Vonnegut’s work has something else particularly old-timey and not in fashion about it: a moral point of view. Not moralistic, necessarily, but simply a point of view.

Apparently contemporary short stories have The Two Verboten P’s — Plot and Perspective.

Showing my biases here, I can hardly think of a less-appealing sounding story than the one described in Eggers rundown of contemporary short-story tropes. I’ve never understood why people want capital R Realism, photo or otherwise, in their art. I see plenty of realistic, pedestrian outcomes in my life, if I’m going to devote my time and attention to a piece of art, I feel like it had damn well better take me somewhere, and I’d prefer that be a bit farther than my own backyard.

As I was reading the enjoyable, well-constructed stories that night after my friend’s funeral and letting my mind ruminate on big, important (moral?) questions while also being thoroughly entertained, I remember thanking my lucky stars that my deceased friend wasn’t a Dave Eggers fan.

About Brundle Guy

Half Man, Half Middle-Man, he's paid to help others realize their artistic visions while struggling in obscurity with his own. What hath social science wrought?!
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5 Responses to What do you look for in a short story?

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Stories that have a “larger point” v. stories in which the action is “pedestrian”? Hmmm, call me crazy, but I think I’ll take the former. Seems that being able to generate genuine suspense and surprise is as worthy a skill in a writer as being able to create a “photorealistic” portrait.

    The only time in my life when I read short stories regularly was in high school for English class, and one of the few I remember lo these two decades later is Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” which I assume falls into Eggers’s “mousetrap” category.

    Are the early Vonnegut stories as manipulative as Eggers makes them out to be? I think it’s time I take a look. Do you recommend any particular collections, BG?

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    • Brundle Guy says:

      Hey B. Esq.,

      I feel like “manipulative” is a term artsy fartsy people use for effective storytelling that they deem lowly or not “complex” enough. I’d say the stories aren’t as clockwork and prodding as Eggars makes them out to be. They’re not Vonnegut’s best, for sure (there’s a reason there wasn’t a huge rush to publish them until after he was dead), but they’re still pretty good. Mediocre Vonnegut is still better than a pretty hefty number of other options.

      I’d say the place to start with Vonnegut short stories would be Welcome to the Monkey House, his best-known collection, containing the aforementioned “Harrison Bergeron” and a lot of other pretty great yarns.

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  2. I do love short fiction, but more on principle than in reality. Why should prose-on-the-page fiction have to be long, darn it? And don’t get me started on the way humorous short fiction doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves. And “literary fiction” of the contempo sort … I leave it to the priests.

    Anyway, fun posting. I’ll take the Vonnegut approach over the Eggers any day too.

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  3. The Question Lady says:

    Thank you for this. And how annoying that Eggers would do an intro to Vonnegut in that way. Vonnegut made fiction matter in a way that Eggers never has, except to people who cling to a view of “literary” fiction. He should have bowed down before Vonnegut.

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