Before Anton Chekhov and the modern period, people still enjoyed the occasional short story, apparently. These short stories were so good, folks told them over and over again. They memorized their plots, their main characters, and some of the spoken parts, and they passed them along orally from town to town and generation to generation.
In fact, those stories were so good, that you know some of them. What’s more, many of those stories’ plots have been adapted for film, woven into novels, captured in visual art forms of every kind. The first animated films were based on them, and television shows running this season are still trying to tap into their popularity.
What modern short story can claim that kind of power — the power and influence of the traditional folk tale?
To get at the issue, let’s consider what sets these old tales apart. Not their length, obviously. The presence of magic? Well, no, not if you include fantasy short stories in the mix. Here are some key traits, in no particular order.
- They have no known author. But this is only partly true, because some of the most successful examples of this genre were composed by Hans Christian Anderson, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, and others. Most weren’t — they were collected and edited, but not invented, by known figures. But even the ones that were draw on a folk tradition of storytelling and, from this tradition (as a support for the personal inventiveness of the author), they draw some of their power. The conscious use of tradition gives these tales a breadth of perspective, rather than the peculiar perspective of one (let’s face it: usually not that well adapted) member of society.
- The characters are sharply drawn. We know folktale characters by what they do, not how they feel about things. A modern critic would say such characters are just “types” or even stereotypes, lacking internal complexity. A post-modern critic will likely complain that “good” and “evil” are too neatly divided between the characters (though this isn’t always true). But there is no question that the reader knows who the “hero” is and what sort of persons the hero and antagonist are. Perceptive readers (modern or post-modern) can find ambiguity in both — a delicious exercise when done well.
- They take you on a journey. With only one exception I can think of, the hundreds of folk tales I have read all move, they all take the reader to some new place, however bizarre or unanticipated. Unlike many modern short stories, never do folktales study, as in a still-life, a particular moment of the main character’s life, or some complex situation peculiar to our society. In fact, short story purists insist that this folktale tradition is wrong. But some genre short stories, in my experience, play with a similar dynamic, extending over days. Few if any cover the same stretch of terrain as, say, the Nix of the Millpond (a man’s entire life) or even Cinderella (a girl’s birth to coming of age).
The really tricky part comes when some of us lovers of folktales (myself included) try to write short stories. We obviously can’t help the first bullet point above, although we can draw more (or less, but why would we?) on the folktale tradition. We can and probably must choose to flex the borders of bullet point two: We may need to say something about what motivates our characters and how they feel about things, to satisfy today’s readers. And we might (for a variety of reasons) feel that humans are morally complex.
But at bullet point three, I think the choice has already been made for us — at least that’s true for me. If you like folktales, you won’t get much pleasure from a short story that doesn’t go anywhere, that microscopically analyzes the human emotions present in a particular moment. And vice versa, by the way. (I’ve been told by one of these purists that wanting a story to “go somewhere” means I just don’t like short stories!) I would argue for a compromise here: agree to disagree. Recognize that there are (at least) two kinds of short story.
There’s value in both, in my view. One trait traditional folk tales share with modern short stories is an interest in exploring human nature. That’s why these tales have this kind of staying power. Many of them — and above all, the most successful ones — reveal something profound about what it means to be human, to live here on earth where wild woods infringe and evil desires lurk. Where everyday people are capable of unspeakable horrors and astounding acts of courage. And you get to ask: What sort am I? What if …?
Thoughts? What sort of short story do you like, if any? What makes one work for you?