HTR&W: What Is a Short Story?

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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”?

Reviewed on June 30, 2008

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.

  • 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?

  • @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.

  • 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.

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