HTR&W: What Is a Short Story?

In How to Read & Why, Bloom doesn’t dwell long on defining the short story in his introduction to the genre. However, he does introduce some ideas of what a short story may be and asks generally how one should read a short story. He bases his comments on other’s definitions. Some of these he agrees with and others he disagrees with; many of them are contradictory.People have claimed that a short story:

  • Dwells on isolated individuals on society’s fringes
  • Wounds once (one major emotion)
  • Gives multiple sensations (many emotions)
  • Is not a parable or saying and so is not a “fragment”
  • Gives us the pleasure of closure
  • Can be read in one sitting (Edgar Allan Poe’s definition)

Bloom includes a list of the short story authors he considers great (note that Edgar Allan Poe is, in his opinion, horrible both as a writer in general and as a short story writer more specifically). Many of these favorite authors have works on the HTR&W list and I’ll be reading them in the next few days and weeks. I may or may not agree with his opinions and may or may not agree with me; these things are subjective.

Personally, I think a short story can be full of many emotions, but I love short stories that capture one emotion well. (I really enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies because of the common themes and emotions in each story.) I believe short stories can be about any individual(s), not any particular type. To be a good short story, I do look for some degree of closure, although some artfully written short stories can leave me wondering about the resolution.

To you, what is a short story? What makes a short story “good”?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. @Eva: Oh, I’m glad you’re intrigued….he’s opinionated, but I’m enjoying the challenge to actually *consider* how I’m reading.

  2. WHAT is a short story? Hmmm, altho Poe’s definition is most like my personal definitions (it’s, uh, SHORT, meaning FEW pages!), I know that I have been known to read entire books in one sitting. It’s been a long time ago, tho.

    A thought from the last post that I forgot to comment on there: Mediocrity is sometimes a good thing, especially in acting and in comedy, in that it shows how difficult and great the GOOD stuff is in comparison. Does that make sense?

  3. @Care aka bkclubcare:

    Yes, I like the idea of it being one sitting, but that doesn’t work for me these days since I have 5 minutes at a time! For me, I think short story tends to be more limited emotions, rather than throwing everything at the reader. Not too many subplots or extraneous characters in a short story, in other words, like a novel might do.
    As for mediocrity, I guess, for me, I feel there is too little time to waste on mediocre acting and comedy and books. Seriously, why should I bother? If I know it’s bad, there’s no place for it in my life. (I guess I get plenty of the comparison you’re talking about when I don’t know it’s bad and until I watch or read it.)
    I am starting to think I must be a snob about these things. I’ve read plenty of mediocrity in my life. I’m really looking forward to read some “good” things.

  4. I’ve been ruminating over this post and your question since you posted it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know how to articulate it, but I generally know it when I see it. I ran into this same problem with defining a novella. For example, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is about 80 pages long. Novella or short story? I can’t think of a fair definition for either.

  5. @Jessica: You’re right, I’m not sure length is a good defining factor. I just finished a volume of Chekhov’s “Stories” and some of those were 60+ pages!

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