The legend of the short story, from Ernest Hemingway to Zadie Smith and other great names in literature
Nestled among the delights of countless buxom beauties, literary giants Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer introduced readers to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy to the altogether different charms of the written word.
Hemingway and, later, Mailer’s overt masculinity and muscular writing style particularly suited Hefner’s plans for his bold new magazine. The Playboy man would be as seduced by a deft turn of phrase as by a turn of the head.
It was 1953, the golden age of news, especially in the United States. Authors as diverse as James Baldwin, William Burroughs, JD Salinger and Truman Capote were central to popular culture, with the magazines that had sprung up in the mid-19th century to meet the needs of a new literate middle class helping to pave the way success. .
In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald could drain his income from his novels about alcohol and excess with his wife Zelda, then stay afloat on a salary of $4,000 for a single piece of fiction. “Find the key emotion; that might be all you need to know to find your new one,” he said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, magazine readers feasted on the riches of Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever. Hefner once joked to his centerfolds at a party that without them he’d have nothing but a literary magazine, but his bullish mix of flesh and fiction sold for seven million dollars. copies per month at the height of its power in the 1970s.
Former Playboy literary editor Amy Grace Loyd summed up her formula: “You have things that grab a man’s attention, then you have things that enrich his intellectual and spiritual life,” she said. she stated. “We can reach so many more people than anyone else, and we also reach people who don’t read fiction in general, or at least literary fiction.”
In Australia, The Bulletin was launched in 1880 and is said to champion poems and stories by authors such as Banjo Paterson, CJ Dennis, Henry Lawson and Dorothy Mackellar.
Storytelling exists in history both as an oral tradition and as a common thread that can be traced from the Epic of Gilgamesh, through the tales of Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, to the Decameron of the Italian Giovanni Boccace and the book he influenced, the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
But most scholars agree that the modern short story came to life after the mid-19th century, when rising middle-class literacy and the rise of compulsory education fueled the growth of magazines and periodicals, which perfectly filled the space between the books and the newspapers.
Writers had a new literary form in their hands. Much shorter than a novel, a short story can be around 15,000 words, the action can take place in a single setting, the story can center on a single event and, tellingly, it can be read in a single session. You just had to make every word count. Henry David Thoreau warned, “Not that history needs to be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.
Many regard Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers, published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827, as the first of this new wave. It told of the trial and execution of a Highland herdsman accused of murdering an Englishman.
Short fiction had gained wings in Europe and America, but less so in Britain where the novel remained preeminent, although the sale of macabre “penny deadfuls” exploded. Poe became the master of dark detective stories, publishing his landmark The Fall of the House of Usher in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839 and, with Hawthorne, setting the standard for those to come.
Herman Melville, encouraged to write after regaling his friends with his tales of the sea, would again raise the bar with The Piazza Tales in the 1850s, the same decade that the famous Atlantic magazine (later Atlantic Monthly) was created. He has published many great American writers, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Ivan Turgenev helped spread Russian news. His first major publication, a collection titled A Sportsman’s Sketches, is considered a classic of Russian realism and opened the door to the man who helped revolutionize short fiction, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov radically abandoned the notion of plot, his characters twisting at the whim of fate, his stories refusing to be neatly tied with a ball of string.
Turgenev was a close friend of the French writer Gustav Flaubert, who was establishing his reputation at this time, and they would go on to influence the French master Guy de Maupassant as well as two great storytellers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad.
The Ladies’ Home Journal (which became Town and Country at the turn of the 20th century) hit newsstands in February 1883 and in 1903 became the first in America to attract one million subscribers. The works of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry and Stephen Crane are beginning to find their place.
Back in Britain, short fiction resumed its boom with Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1880s. Strand magazine was born in January 1891, its success being driven by the popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It was the start of a golden age in which Rudyard Kipling produced his most famous stories, Katherine Mansfield was prolific and James Joyce produced his famous short story collection Dubliners in 1914.
In Australia, three magazines that continue to support writers today emerged – Southerly in 1939, Meanjin in 1940 and Overland in 1954.
For many authors, short stories were the launching pad for novels – Salinger wrote several for Story magazine before publishing Catcher in the Rye in 1951 and Raymond Chandler wrote mystery novels for magazines such as Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly before Philip Marlowe appeared in The Big Sleep.
But for many others – Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, John Updike – the two went hand in hand, the demand for brevity and clarity in short fiction just as compelling as writing for the longer form, a glimpse through a microscope is often more revealing than that through a telescope.
The rise of television and, more recently, electronic entertainment has shaken the magazine market, but while short stories are no longer the beating heart of popular culture, they remain as vigorous and as varied as their many practitioners, their brevity a godsend in a fast-paced world.
Raymond Carver was a genre giant throughout the 1970s and 80s and Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro is highly regarded for her ability to break hearts in one sentence. Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao but it is perhaps his short fiction that seals his status. In Australia, Tony Birch has a fine reputation as a novelist while Cate Kennedy and Josephine Rowe are building theirs.
“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick,” says Gaiman. “A few thousand words to take you out into the universe or break your heart.”
Or as American author Rebecca Makkai more helpfully puts it: “Most of the stories we tell in real life are less than 500 words. You’re at a party, everyone is drinking a glass of wine, and suddenly you have the floor. You throw your little story like a grenade. So my advice would be this: don’t beat yourself up thinking that short stories have to be poetry without the line breaks. Don’t put on your beret. Just tell a story, a real story. Quick, while they’re still listening.
If you think you’ve got some good news, enter it into The Best Australian Yarn – the world’s richest prize pool for amateur and professional short fiction writers, run by The West Australian.
READ MORE: Best Australian Feed: The world’s richest news contest is now open
SIX OF THE BEST SHORT STORIES
The Russian playwright and short story writer is considered a leading writer for his ability to observe from different viewpoints and get under the skin of his characters. Recommended reads include The Lady with the Little Dog, The Kiss and the “About Love” Trilogy – The Man in a Case, Gooseberries and About Love.
Described as the “mistress of contemporary short stories” when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, the Canadian author reveals truths at the heart of women’s lives in the most subtle ways. His compilation Dear Life is jostling at the top of the “best of” lists; The bear came over the mountain and The love of a good woman are among his most beautiful stories.
Edgar Allan Poe
The great-grandfather of America’s rich detective story has made its name steeped in Gothic traditions of mystery and the macabre. The Rue Morgue Murders, considered the first modern detective novel, The Fall of the Usher House and The Tell-Tale Heart are recommended, as is his landmark 1845 poem The Crow.
Its stories are written in the Southern Gothic style and its temperamental characters often find themselves in violent situations. O’Connor’s unsentimental writing reflected his Roman Catholic faith. The complete histories compiled posthumously are worth seeking out.
Has published a number of short stories about a young man, Nick Adams, throughout his career which are believed to be largely autobiographical. They were combined into one volume, The Stories of Nick Adams, after his death. Highlights include The Killer and Big Two-Hearted River. Read also Hills like white elephants.
His stories are cool and detached but there is no sharper observer of suburban malaise. Goodbye My Brother and The Swimmer are considered two of the greatest modern short stories.