On Monday, we introduced you to Dawn Promislow, a short story writer who grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Toronto, Canada. Her first collection, Jewels and Other Stories, was published last year by TSAR Publications, and she most recently had a new story, called “She Goes Home,” published in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement (which you can read here).
As promised, here’s part 2 of Bookclub-in-a-Box’s Q&A with Dawn.
Bookclub-in-a-Box: Why do you prefer the medium of short stories to other forms of writing? Do you prefer reading short stories over other works of fiction or non-fiction?
Dawn Promislow: I think I often prefer reading short stories to novels, although that is a broad generalization! I find the short story form remarkably artful and elegant. A short story has no room to go wrong. It has to catch the reader right away and carry him/her every moment, until its neat and artful conclusion. It’s very intense, concentrated, and distilled. I think one can contain a whole world in a short story, I think it has the same capacity, amazingly, as a novel does. It just has less room to do it in. So I admire greatly the artist who can do this.
What makes a short story good? Is there a list of criteria that a short story writer must follow?
In answer to your second question, is there a list of criteria to follow for a short story writer: Absolutely not, I don’t think one can be prescriptive with writing.
But as to what makes a short story good: I think a good short story is like a magic trick, in that timing and precision are essential. Any lapse in precision or timing and the story, or the trick, collapses. (Of course a short story is much more than a “trick”: my analogy is greatly inadequate!)
A short story “burns a hole in the page,” to quote Nadine Gordimer. A short story is defined by intensity. A good short story is a concentration or distillation into the essence of something: a moment in time, a character, a shift in a relationship. And that essence is somehow transferred onto the page.
And when one analyzes a good short story, to find out how the writer managed this distillation, one finds the following: a coherence and harmony to it, a coherence that is internal and organic. To draw another analogy, a good short story is like a painting, in that it’s a carefully orchestrated set of elements that cohere — in colour, pattern, line, rhythm, or voice, or in all of those things. And a good short story will have many resonances within that coherence, and other coherences as well. So the writer has selected a series of elements that cohere in a unique and ordered way. Of course, a novel has to have this as well, but a short story has a more concentrated and distilled coherence, if I may put it that way, and is therefore, in the best cases, remarkably elegant. I think elegant is a good word to describe a successful short story!
Why is it that readers seem to be afraid of getting involved in short fiction?
Short stories are a relatively recent literary form, dating from the early 19th century. It is perhaps longer trajectories, the sweeping epic or saga, that people instinctively search for in their narratives, to make sense of a whole life. You know, the arc of a long narrative that spans a lifetime, or lifetimes, even generations. Homeric. The novel is the form that has evolved to tell this kind of tale.
A short story, on the other hand, concerns itself with the momentary, the fragmentary, the episodic. Short stories sometimes end inconclusively. It’s possible that a short story is more true to life, in this way, than a novel: its fragmentary nature mimics the fragmentary, episodic, and fleeting character, the disjointedness, of life. But perhaps this is less satisfying to some readers, I don’t know.
What freedoms and/or limitations does the medium of short stories afford that other forms of writing might not in the same way?
Well, it’s a wonderful freedom, actually, to “stop” a story! It’s very satisfying to complete the short trajectory that is a short story. It’s almost like solving a puzzle. I imagine it would be a very different feeling to be embarked on the incredibly long journey that is a novel. I mean, a short story can be two pages long and complete, whereas a novel has to be a certain length actually to be published as a novel.
I think a short story can be more playful and experimental in a way, more nimble. It can play with some small thing: a fragmentary incident, voice, or character. And I do, myself, feel a certain sense of play when I write a short story. It’s almost like a dare: can you do it? Can you swing it, you know? Can you “hold” that moment, that feeling, in the palm of your hand — it’s like mercury, it slips away!
The limitations: I know when completing a short story that there are whole pieces I have left out. Facets that had to be left out, in order to maintain the integrity, the intensity, of the short story. There are multiple other stories, tangential moments, and trajectories that could have been told, and were not; pieces that end up on the cutting room floor. That is when I think that perhaps a novel might be more satisfying. You have the space to explore facets and complexities, at greater length and in greater depth. It’s a broader canvas, and there is something very compelling about that.