Why people avoid short fiction
The most common reaction among high school students at the end of a short story is, “Huh? I don’t get it!”
Adults often have the same opinion.
People often don’t enjoy “short stories” because the term is a misnomer. Like most novels, a short story has a beginning, middle, and end — except the end is abrupt, as if pruned by the author. Like a rose, the pruning gives it a special life.
Take “Cathedral” (1981) by Raymond Carver. It’s about a blind man, Robert, who visits a woman who, years earlier, used to read to him when they lived in Seattle. Their lives have diverged; she’s moved to the East Coast. Nevertheless, they’ve stayed in touch through cassette tapes.
One evening the blind visits his friend, who lives north of New York City. The woman (who’s never named) has a husband (also unnamed) who’s a misanthrope. He hates his job and spends his evenings watching TV and smoking weed in a cloud of cynicism. After she announces her friend’s visit, he says, “Maybe I could take him bowling.”
She pleads with her husband to be cordial. He isn’t. Robert has arrived via train up the picturesque Hudson River.
“Did you have a good train ride?” asks the husband. “Which side of the train did you sit on?”
After supper, during which the wife and Robert reminisce, her energy flags. Her husband is left to entertain Robert, who’s become wise to the sarcastic
quips. Lots of Scotch is consumed and weed smoked. The husband turns on the TV. A program about cathedrals comes on.
Robert asks his host to describe what a cathedral looks like; the husband tries and tries and fails miserably: “I’m sorry, but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you,” he laments. “I’m just no good at it.”
“That’s all right, bub,” says Robert.
He asks the husband to fetch heavy paper and a pen so they can draw a cathedral together. Though skeptical, the husband retrieves the materials.
Pressing hard, both their hands on the pen, the two men draw. By now, the wife has opened her eyes and is watching.
“Swell. Terrific. You’re doing fine,” Robert says. “Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub?” and “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?”
Finally, Robert tells him to close his eyes. The story, narrated by the husband, concludes:
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed,” I said.
“Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
My students want to know:
a. What happened at the end?
b. Did the husband feel what it was like being blind?
c. What did the drawing look like?
d. Did Robert teach the cynic a thing or two?
e. Will the husband and wife’s marriage be better now?”
My response: Those questions are the pay-off of a short story. Let’s talk about it!
A short story is not a piece of a novel.
Neither is it a miniaturized version of a novel.
A novel is a life lived over a period of time. A short story is a single incident that changes a life.
It is a conversation overheard in a bar in which the eavesdropper knows little of what came before and nothing what comes after. On the basis of what was heard, she must speculate on her drive home. The form emerged in the 19th century, well after novels, poems, and theater. It is storytelling for busy people in the modern world who often have no time for the grand sweep and moral outlook served up by novels.
A short story is a tonic to the pessimism of our age. It prods readers to consider the possibility of change and hope and — what the hell — to reach for both, even in the midst of exhaustion and doubt.