I was speaking with one of my students the other day, and she asked, "What is it about short stories that make them stand out?" I asked her if she meant stand out from other stories or stand out as a medium for fiction. She wanted both answers.
So . . . what makes certain short stories stand out from other short stories?
For me, it's stories that mean something. Not in the truly metaphorical way but more in the metaphysical one. They have to speak to me in some way - make me connect with the story, the characters, the concept, something. I want to walk away from a short story with having gained some sense of the author's truth about the world.
Perhaps it's the literary mind in me. Perhaps it's the theorist as well. For a long time, I thought that there was a slight sense of arrogance to my preference (and I'll admit that might be part of it) - a hold-over from my academic days where criticism meant the world. Honestly, though, I think that it comes from a continually-growing love of short fiction. I try and read as much as I can when I can afford it and go to the library when I can't. So I've digested a lot of fiction in the last three years. To me, the stories that resonate the most are the ones that I respond to in some way. Whether it's "Wow, that was great" or "What the hell did I just read?"
And . . . what makes short stories stand out from other fiction media?
I will give you my thoughts, and then I will give you the thoughts of two individuals that I highly agree with.
First, I think that it takes a distinct desire to create something concise when one is writing a short story. And with that in mind the author gives himself a challenge to put together one grand thought into a short amount of space. I think it's a challenge because we have want to say what others have said before, but we want to say it our way, and we want it to resonate with someone in a way that it hasn't done before.
Second, I think that short stories are wonderful and diverse and offer a way to be creative, artistic, experimental, and out of the ordinary. Novels are hard to sell and harder still to make "out of the box." Poetry is, by its nature, out of the ordinary. It speaks to the soul in a way that the short story speaks to the mind. And fiction on stage and screen is dramatic and visual; it's hard to compare that to fiction most times.
I think it's best summed up by these two quotes:
Martha Foley, one of the first editors of the Best American series said, "A good short story is a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling she has undergone a memorable experience." I think that Barbara Kingslover - the author - expands upon that nicely: "A good short story cannot simply be Lit Lite; it is the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces."