01 January 1970

Is There A Future For The Short Story?

Weekend Reads

Is There A Future For The Short Story?

Writer Saeed Ibrahim writes about the debate on short stories that he attended. While the supporters of short stories highlighted accessibility and readability, among other positives, the other sides said among other things that the problem with the short story was that it was limited in its sweep because of its reduced length and lacked depth of setting and viewpoints.

Saeed Ibrahim writes on the debate over the relevance and future of short stories
Saeed Ibrahim writes on the debate over the relevance and future of short stories Getty Images

I was recently invited by the Alliance Française de Bangalore to present my book of short fiction The Missing Tile and Other Stories at their Café Littéraire event.  After my talk, a debate was held on the topic, “As a literary genre, there is no future for the short story”.

During the discussion that followed, a wide range of viewpoints were put forth, both for and against. 

Several people agreed that the power of the short story lay in its brevity and compactness. The theme of the story, the setting, the plot, the characters, the conflict, the turning point, and the resolution were all contained in a short space. And it is precisely this compactness that made this form of writing so appealing. Unlike a novel, a short story could provide a quick and easy read from start to finish in a short period of time, and often in a single sitting. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “Short stories are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

Modern technology has also been kind to the short story genre. What set the short story apart was that, compared to a full-length novel, the short story today could be made accessible to readers in a much quicker timeframe and at a much lower cost. With so many online magazines, it was now cheaper to produce and distribute more short fiction than ever before. This flexibility made it possible to download a short story on a website, on a mobile phone, or on a tablet; and a short story could be read and enjoyed anywhere and anytime — during a lunch break, in a doctor’s waiting room, on a short journey or a commute, or even whilst waiting in a queue.

On the other hand, it was felt that the problem with the short story was that because of its reduced length, it was limited in its sweep. It offered less time space and covered events of a shorter time period without depth in either atmosphere or setting. On account of its shorter length, the short story followed a single thread and supported a single point of view. It rarely featured more than a single plot or more than one main character.

Opposing this argument, supporters of shorter length stories maintained that because of the media overload in today’s world, our attention span was shrinking. This is why it was important to condense the message in a short and concise form and in a way that caught the attention of the reader, stimulated his curiosity, and made them want to turn the page and read the story to its end. In the same way, short stories were a good means of inculcating the reading habit. They were great for reluctant readers, slow readers, or anyone intimidated by books. 

Opponents of the short story argued that often the ending in a short story was not complete. The lack of detail or closure left the reader dissatisfied or even confused. Sometimes short stories ended on an emotional note or with an ambiguous or abrupt ending, without resolution. Novels, on the other hand, provided the much-needed closure and the ending was invariably neatly tied up. After spending a considerable amount of time and getting invested in a character or characters, readers wanted to know clearly what happened to them, and for this reason they tended to prefer novels.

In support of short stories, it was noted that short stories had provided many authors with a stepping stone to a flourishing literary career. Several successful writers had honed their writing skills through the vehicle of the short story. 

As a closing line of argument, critics put forth the premise that after all was said and done, short stories were easily forgettable, leaving no lasting impact or impression on their readers. To which, as a final rebuttal, short story supporters pointed to the lasting power of the short story, giving the example of famous and successful films and television serials that were based on short stories. The Curios Case of Benjamin Button, for instance, was an award-winning film inspired by a story by F Scott Fitzgerald and released 86 years after the original story was written. Closer home, Malgudi Days was made into a television serial of 54 episodes and four seasons and had become a household word in India. It was inspired by a series of 32 short stories written in 1943 by celebrated author RK Narayan. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the debate and found it to be of a high standard with well thought-out and well-presented arguments on both sides. As a writer of short stories, my views were perhaps biased, but I was gratified to note that the motion was defeated.  With strong arguments in its defence, it was concluded that the short story as a genre was alive and kicking and was here to stay. There was no question of there not being a future for the short story.

(Saeed Ibrahim is a Bangalore-based writer. He is the author of two books — Twin Tales from Kutcch, a family saga set in Colonial India, and The Missing Tile and Other Stories, a collection of 15 short stories. Saeed was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and later, at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. His other writings include newspaper articles, travel essays, several book reviews, and two essays for the Museum of Material Memory. His short stories have been published in The Deccan Herald, The Beacon Webzine, Bengaluru Review, The Blue Lotus Magazine, Borderless Journal, Muse India, Outlook India, and Indian Periodical.)