On short fiction

From a 1824 letter written by Washington Irving:

I have preferred adopting the mode of sketches and short tales rather than long works. . . there is a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of the kind, more than the world appears to imagine. It is comparatively easy to swell a story to any size when you have once the scheme and the characters in your mind; the mere interest of the story, too, carries the reader on through pages and pages of careless writing, and the author may often be dull for half a volume at a time, if he has some striking scene at the end of it; but in these shorter writings, every page must have its merit. The author must be continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it. Yet if he succeed, the very variety and piquancy of his writings—nay, their very brevity, make them frequently recurred to, and when the mere interest of the story is exhausted, he begins to get credit for his touches of pathos or humor; his points of wit or turns of language.

From Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose (2001) written by Raymond Carter:

If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves” as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.

From a 1957 interview with Truman Capote in The Paris Review:

When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.

From a 1891 letter written by Henry James:

Make [the short story] tremendously succinct—with a very short pulse or rhythm—and the closest selection of detail—in other words summarize intensely and deeply and keep down the lateral development. It should be a little gem of bright, quick, vivid form.

From a 1925 letter to his father written by Ernest Hemingway:

You see I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to. 

From a 1958 interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review:

If it is any use to know it, I always to try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

From a 1972 interview with Eudora Welty in The Paris Review:

A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion—than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.

From a 1949 article written by Eudora Welty in The Atlantic Monthly:

The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery—not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful.

From a 2006 interview with George Sanders in The New York Times Magazine:

When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world.

From the introduction to Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005) written by David Sedaris:

A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.

From Ways of Escape (1980) written by Graham Greene:

With a novel, which takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It is not only that his characters have developed — he has developed with them, and this nearly always gives a sense of roughness to the work: a novel can seldom have the sense of perfection which you find in Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the Dog.” It is the consciousness of that failure which makes the revision of the novel seem endless — the author is trying in vain to adapt the story to his changed personality — as though it were something he had begun in childhood and is finishing now in old age.


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