Do Short Stories Mean Anything?:
A Personal View

“Reader and Writer, we wish each other well. Don’t we want and don’t we understand the same thing? A story of beauty and passion, some fresh approximation of human truth?” -Eudora Welty [1]


“The fear of not ‘getting’ a short story seems to be based on some sort of notion that short stories are like fables, in that each one is supposed to lead to some obvious, concluding lesson about life.” Brad Hooper [2]


         It was both fortunate and unfortunate that the first literary anthology I owned was one of those produced for university students. Fortunate because, international in flavor, wide ranging in genre and styles, well-stocked in the classics, it presented perfectly the lay of the land. Unfortunate because after each story were those study questions that, thankfully, later editions dropped. A quick thumbing through the book gives the general flavor of these for those that aren‘t familiar with them. Gems like: What does the story say about the wisdom acquired by aging; Interpret by paraphrasing the symbolic significance of the wheel; and etc. Being confused and befuddled by questions like these is one of the reasons that short stories have a bad name I think. For those being introduced to literary short fiction in the usual way, in an English or writing class, they tend to reinforce the natural feeling, in fact seem to provide concrete evidence, that something has just gone completely over their head.  
        But study questions aside, short fiction, like poetry, has always had a natural problem with readers saying “huh” after the last word has been read.  I know early on short fiction as a whole made me feel inadequate as a reader.  I quickly got the feeling I somehow wasn’t paying attention and the “great idea” the author was desperately trying to give me had inexplicably fluttered away.
         What had gone wrong? I was a careful reader, I felt. Why couldn’t I decipher the hidden meaning? It turns out that what was failing me mostly was my concept of the writer and his craft. Before we can ask the question ‘what does this story mean?’, we have to step back and ask a different question: do authors of short stories start out writing a story with a preconceived theme, some point they are trying put to across to the reader? And then do they stock the story with little clues here and there which are meant to help the careful reader draw out the theme?

         Robert Frost said something once to the effect that if he knew the ending of a poem before he wrote it, the poem usually turned out to be a pretty damn poor one.  Of course what Frost was saying was that the act of writing poetry for him was really an act of discovery. He couldn’t know ahead of time where he was going or the result would probably sound contrived.  What I would like to relay here is that after reading what authors of short stories have had to say about their craft, most good short stories are not written with the ending, or equivalently, an over-arching theme, in mind either.

         Flannery O’Connor was an American writer from Georgia. Though she also wrote novels, Joyce Carol Oates has said “her genius was clearly for the short story.” [3] Not only did she write them, but she also had a lot to say about them. In her essay “Writing Short Stories”, she had this to say concerning the writing of her story “Good Country People” :

          “When I started writing that story I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out this was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.” [4]

          Doesn’t sound like she had any “great idea” in mind when she started writing this story. Doesn’t really sound like she had any particular idea at all. She just started writing and let her pen take her on a journey that, observed Raymond Carver, had an “ending she could not even guess at until she was nearly there“. [5] Carver, one of the preeminent short story writers of the latter part of the last century, quoted this same section in his essay “On Writing”. He then went on to say:

          “When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.” [6]

         I certainly felt better as a reader too! Maybe I wasn’t so dense after all. I think O’Conner’s essay should be required reading for short story fans, because once we understand how writers actually do their work, it helps us to relax and be more open to where they end up taking us. Her essay drives home the point that writer and reader are tied together in the fiction process, as Eudora Welty, another southern short fiction writer, indicates in the quote at the beginning of this piece. I think we can now safely dispense with the picture of the short story writer as an oracle doling out wisdom through riddles written as stories. Maybe all short story writers aren’t as unorganized as O’Connor and Carver, but neither are they cunning as we sometimes think they are. All writing is an act of discovery. As Patricia Hampl has said “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.” [7] Reading is no less an act of self-discovery for the reader too.

         “But“, I can hear you insisting, “a story has to mean something, right?” Others have said, and I agree, the meaning you gain from a short story, if you gain one at all, is the product of the story itself and you; who you are, what you know, where you have been, what, in total, you have experienced in life. What you take away from a story depends in large part on what you bring to it. Thus meaning becomes very amorphous and individualistic. This is not to say it is a free-for-all and any analysis works. Certainly stories place before us specific scenes, peopled with specific characters who say and do specific things. But how the reader interacts with the story cannot be ignored. And if you don’t take away any particular meaning from a story, so what? If you like a story there is no requirement that you know why. In fact it may be better not to look too close. The poet A.E. Housman once said Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out…Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” [8] And to be pleased, to be entertained, is the first thing we desire from reading – whatever it is we read, novels, poetry, mysteries, fantasy, etc. Flannery O’Conner had this to say about analyzing short stories:                    

            “In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.         

          I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many (readers), the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.” [9]

         It sounds to me as if she believes picking apart a story for meaning is an activity in looking for something in the wrong way. It sounds as if, being a writer of short stories, she desires a different reaction from her audience – one that doesn’t attempt to portray the story in a simplistic manner.

         My apologies if you started reading this in hopes that I was going to give you some sort of insight or trick necessary to dissect short stories. I have been reading stories for over thirty-five years and I don’t have any hints of this sort to dispense. I only hope this makes you more comfortable, more bold, in coming up with your own personal meaning, or with not finding any meaning at all. In our technological age, we’ve been led to believe too much that there is an answer for every question. But I believe sooner or later we have to come to terms with our ignorance of most things. On that note, I am going to present one more long quote from Ms. O‘Connor. Speaking very honestly about her craft she told an audience once:

          “I have very little to say about short story writing. It’s one thing to write short stories and another thing to talk about writing them, and I hope you realize that your asking me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish to lecture on swimming. The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it. Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.” [9]

         “…nothing produces silence like experience…”. I like that. I like it a lot. Five words that say much about our limits of probing the nature that is ourselves. No doubt all artists, from the concert pianist, to the theoretician, to the baseball slugger would likely agree. As readers too, we can take comfort in O’Connor’s feeling unable to put into words the process of writing. Because if you end up reading lots of short stories, if you become hooked on them like I have, then you’ll find the process of absorbing them will be just as mysterious.

[1] Welty, Eudora, Looking at Short Stories, The Eye of the Story
[2] Hooper, Brad, Short Story Writers and Their Work: A Guide to the Best
[3] Oates, Joyce Carol, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, pg. 397.
[4] O’Connor, Flannery, Writing Short Stories, Mystery and Manners, pg. 100.
[5] Carver, Raymond, On Writing, Call If You Need Me, pg. 91.
[6] Carver, Raymond, On Writing, Call If You Need Me, pg. 91.
[7] Housman, A.E., Leslie Stephen Lecture, University of Cambridge.
[8] O’Connor, Flannery, On Her Own Work, Mystery and Manners, pg.108.
[9] O’Connor, Flannery, Writing Short Stories, Mystery and Manners, pg. 87

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s