Two Peasant Women in a Meadow (Le Pré) - Pisarro - MFA Boston

Nowhere to Hide; or, the Excellence of the Short Story

short stories are empty fields—there are no places to hide.

By Davis Dunham


Before I begin, I would like to make it clear that I am not disparaging the novel. Novels, in many cases, are outstanding. I have no problem with a good, lengthy book—except for the fact they provide too many places to hide. When you have places to hide, the game is less about skill than it is about darting from place to place, revealing yourself in quick, often dangerous bursts before finding another shelter. In my opinion, it’s easy for a novel to fall into the trap of running from the story instead of running towards it. The game becomes more about making it to the end than about winning.

The problem with these places to hide is not only that they provide shelter for the writer, but that they also provide shelter for the reader. How can an author tempt their readers out into the open, make them vulnerable and wonder what’s next, if they are perfectly comfortable where they are?

Short stories are wide open, empty fields. Once there are no places to hide, there can’t be any running to or from the story. There isn’t any hiding behind a mound of grass (perhaps a B plot) or a tree stump (a new question to avoid answering an old one). The short story’s open field means that both the author and the reader have to approach the game with skill.

Consequently, reading a well-crafted short story is a game I willingly lose. I’ll use “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri as an example. The reader quickly understands what’s going on: a married couple, who love each other despite their strained relationship, have to spend an hour in the dark every night as the electric system in their neighborhood undergoes repairs. Lahiri sits two people in desperate need of an argument in a darkened room together, over and over again.

The game is whether or not, as the couple continually divulges secrets to each other, you will figure out the answer to the story’s underlying question before Lahiri asks it. The bare premise that Lahiri supplies leaves both her and her readers no place to hide. There is no attempt on her part to mislead you, and there is no excess detail you can blame for not understanding the story. More than this, the author’s ability to play on the open field instills you with confidence that she’ll be able to pull it off.

Another example is “A Little Burst,” one of the stories from Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Olive, the titular character, spends the bulk of the story alone in her adult son’s bedroom, coming to terms with the fact that he—now 38 and unhappy with his mother—has finally married. When the story seems to stagnate—when a novel could simply end the chapter and begin somewhere else—Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law insult her through an open window. (This is ironic for the purposes of my metaphor, seeing as this pivotal moment in the story relies on both characters thinking they are properly hidden.) The well-crafted short story doesn’t just leave its reader and writer with nowhere to hide, it leaves its characters exposed too. If you don’t believe me, reference my earlier point on the characters of “A Temporary Matter” sitting together in a darkened room with nothing to do but talk—just like the author and the reader, the couple have nowhere to hide.

Of course full novels can’t be built on such bare principles. Open fields can only be so big. Past a certain point, they’re just boring. The “nowhere to hide” concept behind the short story requires the field (the metaphorical field) to be small. Otherwise it’s not a game, it’s just two people chasing each other, intermittently, back and forth. Novels need the places to hide. That’s what makes short stories so special—not because novels are overly complicated, but because the brevity of short stories allows them to be so simple.