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Law by Robert M Coates is a good example of the high-concept story: what happens when the law of averages is suddenly repealed.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

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?