BY DURE-MAKNOON AHMED ’20
Works of literature do not often go viral, but recently a short story called “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian was widely shared and commented on. The story centers around a young college-aged woman who enters a rocky relationship with a considerably older man, and it explores the volatility of 21st century relationships. This theme resonated with a large crowd, as it paralleled the #MeToo movement that spread through social media. Due to its short length, “Cat Person” was able to spread like wildfire and impact thousands of people.
For centuries, the short story has been a way for people to easily access literature. According to Deirdre Fulton’s article in the Portland Phoenix, short stories were “a way to get words into many hands and in front of many eyes.” For college students, the stresses of school and required reading get in the way of enjoing large works, such as novels, for fun. Short stories are an alternative. “[These stories] are just as good as books but shorter,” said Aicha Belabbes ’19. “They’re good to read if you want to read, but do not have enough time.”
Olivia McCauley ’20 particularly enjoys the low commitment required for reading a short story. “Starting to read a book feels like a huge formidable task,” said McCauley. “But starting a short story is low commitment, and you are not concerned that you will not finish it.” She uses this quality of the short story to her advantage to limit time spent on social media. “I have the New Yorker app in my phone, and whenever I feel like doing nothing and scrolling through social media,” she said. “I open a short story instead and read that. It’s a more rewarding experience than mindless scrolling, and I get to read a lot without having to find extra time.”
The New Yorker, an American magazine founded in the 1920s, is one of the major mainstream publications that features a short story in each issue. According to an article in the Balance, the New Yorker has been considered a “magazine [with] serious literary status” since its founding. It has helped successful writers, such as John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alice Munro rise to prominence, and continues to be a popular source of literary fiction for many.
Camille Bordas, a French author and contributing writer in the New Yorker, commented on her view of short stories in a New Yorker interview. She said that she was fascinated by the American concept of “contemporary short story as serious fiction, as work that deserves to be undertaken by writers and received by readers with as great an intensity as — if not with a greater intensity than — that which in France is reserved for the novel.” One of the most prominent examples of a short story is Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” The shortness of the work keeps the emotions taut, and the story grips the reader from start to finish. In its short length, the work explores themes of social injustice, financial inequality and human nature.
The shortness of the genre does not take away from the literary merit or the skill required to write a short story. Urdu short stories, for example, are favored avidly by the most prolific prose authors like Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto. The novel is currently generally favored by writers of popular fiction, who leave the difficult task of tightly-woven narration and evoking emotion to the likes of canonical authors like Manto. Manto’s stories explore heavy themes like prostitution, sexuality, crime and violence, but are so short that they leave the reader wanting more. In most stories, the end is a shock that heightens the drama of the plot even more.
Fulton’s article contends that short stories are not just “bite-sized, accessible [and] entertaining stories,” but are also “focused, challenging [and] experimental work.” They showcase an author’s ability to be precise as well as weave a story within the constraints of a short length.