September 16, 2012

In defense of the short story

By Carrie Snyder

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the short story form. The jacket copy on my book, The Juliet Stories, categorizes it as a “novel-in-stories.” That seems as accurate to me; but the funny thing is that not everyone agrees. 

Photo by Nancy Forde
“These are not stories, this is a novel,” I’ve been told by more than one reader.

Fair enough. Reading is an individual experience. And I suppose I could see it as a bit of a compliment: everyone wants to write a novel, right? Maybe I’m just being touchy on the subject.

Truth is, when I started writing The Juliet Stories, it was a novel. And it didn’t work. I wrote and re-wrote the damn thing, but nothing about it wanted to be a novel. Eventually I gave up, but the material wouldn’t quit my consciousness, so I wrote a story. And another. And a few more, until—to skip over a whole lot of angst and gritty, dull work—I had a book. A “novel-in-stories.”

Is this a confession of failure? That the material I tried to shape into a novel refused my entreaties to fit to form? I’m not sure. It could be that I’m not a novelist. Or it could be that a tale knows how it wants to be told. 

A short story is, by definition, shorter than a novel. It might be longer than a poem, but then again, it might not be. A short story is, often, just about exactly the length of a chapter. 

So why not call them chapters, when strung together to make a coherent whole?

Each chapter in The Juliet Stories was written as a short story; if removed from context, it’s meant to stand on its own. I never thought of any as being a chapter leading to another chapter. That said, these stories belong together. They serve a larger whole. They are placed chronologically, and the characters remain themselves throughout the book, changing as characters do, and don’t, according to their development. The book has an overarching plot, unifying themes. 

I know all of that. But I think these remain stories, at heart.

Each curves back on itself at the end, so you see its beginning in a new way. Much happens, but plot is not the focal point. Mood is, and sensation, and attention to detail. There is something fragile about stories, something open-ended, something that points to mystery.

It isn’t that I don’t want you to read The Juliet Stories as a novel. Of course you may. But don’t make it be a novel. Don’t make it end, like novels end, at The End. Let it be, maybe, a meditation on the things we can’t say, we only understand, or believe, or feel; or, let it be like a memory, something you’ll think about and wonder about, but never pin down in absolute terms.

Because I’m pretty sure that’s what a short story is. And that’s why I write them. 

Carrie Snyder joins Meira Cook, Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, Cordelia Strube, Richard Van Camp, and Jess Walter on Mainstage, "Life Lessons" on Monday, September 24th, 8pm, at MTYP The Forks.

The next day, Tuesday, September, 25th, she joins Cordeila Strube for Afternoon Book Chat, with Festival Director Charlene Director, at McNally Robinson, 2:30-3:30pm.

Visit Carrie Snyder at

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