Short and Sour Stories

By Will Entwistle

Brevity makes storytelling punchy and memorable. Shorter stories do not neglect detail, but rather repurpose it. Authors of short stories select few, precise words and condense many meanings within, particularly during insulting passages. Does this, then, mean that less is more? Read about Short and Sour Stories here.

  Illustration: Tony Bui. Instagram: tonybuifanclub.


Anton Chekhov explained to his brother, Alexander, what makes a good story. Unsurprisingly, the first criterion is the ‘Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature’. Chekhov’s work is apolitical but sets each story within a particular social class, and does so concisely.


Chekhov’s other criteria include ‘truthful descriptions of persons and objects’, and later ‘audacity and originality: flee the stereotype’. Honesty and audacity mark the relationship of short stories with readers. Both traits appeal to us because honesty and audacity are inherently gripping. So, each story within Chekhov’s collection is not the progression of a single plot but is instead distinct; the stories are unrelated flashes of human life. As Raymond Carver put it, we are drawn to a short story because of an ‘inclination toward brevity and intensity’.

Alexander Chekhov


But, why is less more? Well, short stories are functional. For ‘the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found’, says Carver. But beyond a gripping beginning, it is ‘so crucially important’ that the ‘story can be written and read in one sitting.’ This demands the authors’ precision, attempting to engage readers for entire sittings. It involves selecting the ‘right words, the precise images, as well as the exact and correct punctuation’ to sustain the reader’s attention ‘unless the house caught fire’, writes Carver. So, short stories are fleeting glimpses of another existence that haul readers in from the first line.


Carver’s Feathers, in his collection Where I’m Calling From, includes an insulting description of a baby. Jack, the protagonist, considers the baby the ugliest he’d ever seen. ‘It was so ugly I couldn’t say anything. No words would come out of my mouth. I don’t mean it was diseased or disfigured. Nothing like that. It was just ugly’, he said. Carver used plain, short sentences to compound the baby’s ugliness until he returned to the initial slight: ‘ugly’. Jack’s insult refers to his glimpse of the baby but also reflects his disappointment with all that confronts him, albeit inoffensive.

Raymond Carver


Space constricts short story authors, which forces them to make fewer words count. But we shouldn’t think of pith as a hindrance to stories since it adds pressure to writer and reader alike. Using fewer words pressures the author to condense meaning into brief sentences. Often, authors make subtle changes to these to form precise insults. For instance, Carver exchanges the pronoun ‘he’ with ‘it’ during the description of the baby, which refuses the baby all but ugliness. Carver ensures that Jack disguises the description when he talks, saying, “He’s a big fellow, isn’t he?” But then he reverts back to thinking of the baby as ‘the fat thing’. Carver portrays Jack as harsh and aloof within a few, short lines by simply exchanging pronouns.


Slights within short stories emerge also from writer’s attitude, known formally as a worldview but casually as mood. Richard Pevear’s introductory note to Chekov’s Selected Stories recognises that many were drawn to the Russian’s work because of its unpredictability. Critic Nikolai Mikhailovsky claims Chekhov was admired for his ‘indifference and impassibility’; traits which help form effective insults. But Mikhailovsky meant this as a criticism; as did Tolstoy, noting that Chekhov had ‘no definite point of view on things.’ Chekhov’s uncertainty caused Mikhailovsky and Tolstoy discomfort. But is this trait remiss?


Simply, it is not. Chekhov’s uncertainty excites readers, particularly those who desire unpredictability. His stories are often understood as a collection of detailed glimpses with each ending abruptly.

Anton Chekhov

Gusev, for example, is an adaptation of his experience during a burial at sea. Chekhov describes the death of a soldier aboard a boat, recreating it into a funny insult. Gusev notices that Stepan, a discharged soldier, is dead but decides to criticise a sailor who overlooked this. The sailor warmly offers Stepan some water, then Gusev mocks the sailor’s generosity shouting, ‘What!… There’s no breath in him! He’s dead! That’s ‘what’ for you! Such senseless folk, Lord God!’


Gusev’s scorn appears direct. Chekhov, however, includes the term ‘senseless’ within Gusev’s insult. Stepan, now dead, is literally senseless. But Gusev also lacks sense because he treats the sailor’s warmth with contempt. The irony within this excerpt hints that language used in short stories is selected more carefully than initially thought.


Perhaps, less is more.

If you enjoyed this article, check out Iannis Xenakis: Drawing Music.


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