Most of the short stories I write are less than a thousand words long. Many of them hover around the 500 word mark – that makes them eligible for the Flash Fiction competitions that are so common these days. It also makes them vulnerable to being thought of as Flash Fictions, which risks them being thought of as something other than short stories.

I’m interested in definitions: they are one of the mechanisms by which we can see the erosion or development, if you prefer, of language. When we change our definitions of things, it is often not the thing itself that is being changed, but the perimeter of the sphere of things which the word encloses. It is important I think to know what a thing is, when we are trying to make it, and especially so, if having made it we want to make it better.

There’s another term, not so often encountered now, that refers to very short stories, and that is ‘anecdotes’. It’s a term that seems to me to be written with a curled lip, at least in the books of literary criticism, and the introductory essays that I have read, and it’s considered as a lesser thing than even short stories, in a context of seeing them as lesser things than novels.

Yet another label is that of ‘Tales’, which Coppard favoured and Bates disparaged – despite using it in the title of a 1938 short story collection. Tales and anecdotes both imply told stories, and stories told in voice, rather than in print. Perhaps if Flash Fiction carried the same implications I should not be so wary of it, but the fact that its American originators meant by it the flash of a single turned page, pins it to the printed, rather than the spoken word, and that alone risks pinning it, as a minor afterthought, or apprentice-piece, to the novel.

I see the short story, however short, as a tale, or anecdote, as something that one person might tell to another, or to a group of others. I see it also as a tale told with purpose, and with a point that is revealed, shockingly, subtly, or even slyly underhandedly, in its closing sentences, phrases, or words. In fact, the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with the idea of long short stories being thought of as short stories at all. Stories that cannot be listened to, or read, in one sitting, taken in as a single unit, need another word. Length might give them the complexity that requires the word ‘novel’ or at least that vaguer term, novella.

Stories that do not need to belong to print, but where print is merely a convenient way to store them, are what I want to reserve the term ‘short story’ for. People often feel constrained by definitions, but definitions can be like the strings of a kite, and strings are what enable the kite to fly. My favourite metaphor for the novel is a cruise: my favourite for the short story is a crossing.

Whether I’m right, or wise to see short stories in this way is a matter for discussion, and persuasion, but that’s where I am, and have been, give or take a little refining, for the past decade or two.

Pewter Rose Press, publisher of BHD’s collection of short stories, Talking To Owls will cease trading at the end of March this year, but they still have copies available, here.TalkingtoOwls

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