The most recent Nobel Prize for Literature was just awarded to Alice Munro, a Canadian author of several collections of short stories – 15 total since her first was published in 1968. Interestingly, unlike most other fiction writers who have won a Nobel Prize for Literature, Munro has never released a novel. In an interview with the New York Times, Munro discusses the importance of receiving the Nobel despite this fact.
“I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel,” she told the Times.
Munro is the first author to win the prize for a lifetime of work that revolves entirely around short stories. Other recipients often had short stories in their portfolios, but their bodies of work revolved instead around their novels or, for some, their poems. For whatever reason, short stories have long been regarded as the novel’s less-sophisticated younger cousin. Getting a collection of short stories published does not often carry the same kind of prestige as doing the same with a full-length novel.
Of course, here at Shenandoah, we pride ourselves on the publication of several high-quality short stories every year. They are an integral part of the magazine’s content, and we typically publish upwards of four in every issue, as well as quite a few pieces of flash fiction. There is obviously something about a great short piece that makes it just as relevant in the literary world as any novel.
Short stories are, as the name implies, shorter than novel-length works. This brevity can result in a hyper-concentration of the most desirable attributes of any story, whether it be novel-length or shorter. When an author sets out with the intention to write a short story, they are tasked with making the reader care about his or her characters and the outcome of the story in much less than a quarter of the length novelists have to work with. Because of this, excellent dialogue, description, characterization, and plot all unfold rapidly before the reader’s eyes. Too often longer works can get bogged down with unnecessary padding that adds little to the plot or character development. Short stories with the same problem are easily identified as weak and quickly passed over for something better.
I agree with Munro: people should stand up and take notice of short stories and their authors. It’s time we stopped overlooking this integral piece of literature and begin to accord it the respect it deserves as a form. After all, if poems can be highly literary pieces of work in fewer than ten lines, then why write off the short story? –Sam O’Dell