The long journey for a little gem

There's an art to writing a short story. Indeed, it can be far harder than writing a full-length book, even for an acclaimed novelist

Exchange Rates, short-listed last month for the National Short Story Award, was the first proper short story I've written since I was 22. While a couple of other "stories" have been published meantime, they were both, sneakily, excerpts from novels.

Does that mean that for the last 30 years I've been too absorbed in the vastly more demanding business of writing novels to bother with stupid little short stories? Hardly. I did try my hand at the form about 10 years ago, and the bloody thing ballooned into a 107-page novella. I still wasn't good enough. See, line by line, short stories are more difficult than novels. I am barely mature enough as a writer to craft them now, and I've long been in awe of authors who can pack so much into so little.

From about 200 pages to thousands, the novel is naturally elastic, and can accommodate an almost infinite mouthing off: set-piece diatribes, long-winded conversations, extended interior reflection, lengthy departures into a character's history or family relationships. The short story is a haiku in comparison. Every word has to count. At the same time, a good story can't seem hurried or cramped. Optimally, a story opens with a relaxed, casual luxuriousness, as if the author has all the time in the world. Yet with the wordage I would expend in a mere chapter of a novel, a short story has to set a tale in time and place, sketch its characters, unfurl a whole plot, and provide a resolution not only satisfying but significant.

As for the masters of this form, I'd nominate William Trevor first and foremost, surely the finest short-story writer alive who's writing in English. The others in my personal pantheon are, alas, no longer with us, but their collections are: John Cheever, Richard Yates, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, and W Somerset Maugham.

One of my favourite books in childhood was called The Looking Glass Book of Stories, and two of its selections in particular have stayed with me ever since. The Law by Robert M Coates is a good example of the high-concept story: what happens when the law of averages is suddenly repealed. It begins: "The first intimation that things were getting out of hand came one early-fall evening in the late nineteen-forties. What happened, simply, was that between seven and nine o'clock on that evening the Triborough Bridge had the heaviest concentration of outbound traffic in its entire history." Subsequently, thousands of consumers converge on one shop, all looking for a spool of pink thread. It's an entrancing, playful exploration of how dependent social systems are normative behaviour – in a mere seven pages.

Another beguiling story in that collection that's stayed with me for over 40 years, Shirley Jackson's One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, follows a man making improbably benevolent, decent, and charitable gestures all day: bringing lovers together, watching a child while a harried mother is moving house. Yet when he comes home, his wife reports cheerfully how she spent the day: "Went into a department store this morning and accused the woman next to me of shoplifting, and had the store detective pick her up. Sent three dogs to the pound – you know, the usual thing ... I got on to a bus and asked the driver for a transfer, and when he helped someone else first I said that he was impertinent, and quarrelled with him. And then I said why wasn't he in the army, and I said it loud enough for everyone to hear, and I took his number and I turned in a complaint. Probably got him fired." When her husband offers to "change over tomorrow", we know the next day he's going to get bus drivers fired. The droll yin-yang is elegant, while at once suggesting that we all have our Jekyll and Hyde sides.

William Trevor always amazes me with his ability to condense what for most writers would be whole novels into mere stories. Take Honeymoon in Tramore, in which newlyweds rock up at a boarding house, where in the first paragraph the landlady "eyed a speck of confetti on the lapel of his navy-blue suit and then glanced briefly at the rounding of Kitty's stomach. It was the summer of 1948, a warm afternoon in July." That beginning is so efficient. And before the story is over, you will know the groom's whole life history, the provenance of that rounding stomach (not the groom), and the sequence of disappointments that passes for their honeymoon. In the meantime, Trevor will have commented on the cruel bargaining of marriage: the groom has accepted damaged goods in exchange for a woman of higher social station, who would never have looked at him twice unless she were pregnant.

The premier narrator of the American suburbs, John Cheever was a dab hand at getting at the big through the tiny. In The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, a married man and a fetching neighbour make another Faustian pact: she will sleep with him, in exchange for a key to his $32,000 bomb shelter in the backyard. I love this passage from when the woman relents: "'I've never done this before,' they always said, shaking their dresses down over their white shoulders. 'I've never done this before,' they always said, waiting for the elevator in the hotel corridor. 'I've never done this before,' they always said, pouring another whiskey. 'I've never done this before,' they always said, putting on their stockings. On ships at sea, on railroad trains, in summer hotels with mountain views, they always said, 'I've never done this before.'"

Thus Cheever manages to both depict the corruptions of both two individuals and of the whole Cold War. When the wife discovers her husband's infidelity, because the mistress's maid has found a key to the bomb shelter on her employer's keyring, she despairs: "He had dragged her good name through a hundred escapades, debauched her excellence, and thrown away her love, but she had never imagined that he would betray her in their plans for the end of the world."

All my professional life, short stories have enjoyed brief vogues followed by long hiatuses during which the form was dismissed as unsaleable. "No one publishes short stories anymore," literary agents have cyclically pronounced to their authors. "A story anthology is commercial poison these days, I'm afraid." But any form that takes more skill to pull off than any old novel, and that on average perfectly fills the time it takes to hit the pillow, read a while, grow agreeably sleepy – well, it's never going to die completely.

Lionel Shriver is shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award which celebrates the best of the contemporary short story. See www.bbc.co.uk/nssa

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