The modern age is supposed to be about limited attention spans, but books seem to be getting longer and longer. A trilogy these days is just a teaser for the next five volumes. Perhaps long fiction is a sign of an age where people are relatively isolated. You picture a short tale as something that people share beside a campfire, passed around like biscuits. These are insular affairs, bounded by the edge of the light, reaffirming the identity of a small group. Perhaps we don’t have so many campfires anymore. Instead, people read quietly on their own, lost in enormous books describing fictional lands, where more often than not, people wearing leather and wielding swords gather around campfires and tell tales.
There are, however, new ways for people to come together. The internet is now a place where people socialise and find like-minded people. It is here that short fiction seems to be making something of a comeback. Many websites offer short and ultra-short fiction – flash fiction – taking place around the scattered campfires of the internet.
Alice Munro is one of the best modern short story writers. She works in the long tradition of tales expressing the identity of the storyteller’s locality, Canada in her case. On the other hand, Alice Munro has devoted readers in all parts of the world. The world is more connected now than it has ever been. Stories have to reach out beyond the fire. In terms of the history of the short story, this expansive trend emerged in the sixteenth century when the “sketch” developed. This was a short piece of writing almost journalistic in its intent. The sketch writer’s aim was less to define the fireside group as introduce readers to places or facts with which they were unfamiliar. Alice Munro has the spirit of the sketch in her work, a sense of bigger things beyond the bounds of her stories. There is the characteristic quirk, for example, that Munro’s characters exaggerate drama in small things, and underplay drama in big things. Canada is a place of everyday lives and trifling events: Canada is also an ancient landform called “the Precambrian Shield,” which sits in vast time and space outside the windows of a train carrying a young woman to college or a new job. This limitless and ancient landscape bleeds into apparently small lives, revealing great space and universality in them. Ordinary people have psychic powers, mundane events have mystical overtones, and minor accidents have wide, almost predestined consequences.
The serious reputation of short stories has always suffered in comparison with the novel; but short fiction could actually be the tip of a modern iceberg, suggesting much that lies beneath the surface. Short stories could actually lay a claim to represent a definitive modern form.