The form that is most widely and popularly accepted as a means of storytelling is the short story. It is commonly accepted that the short story evolved as a way for an English writer named Horatio Alger to make a better living, as writing short stories was much easier and quicker back in the 1800s than writing a full-length novel. The structure of the short story allows for both literary and commercial success; however, there are important differences between the two. Literary critics sometimes refer to the short story as the “little magazine” or “penny dreadful,” indicating that it was originally written for a mass audience, and it often depicts socially significant issues that affect a wide audience.
The Appeal of Short Stories
The appeal of short stories is fairly obvious. First of all, they are shorter. A short story can be written in just a few thousand words, which makes it easier for both the author and the editor to handle. If an author and editor are a happy couple, they can polish a short story in a few weeks rather than a few months or more for a full-length novel. Another advantage of short stories is that they are generally easier to market. A short story can be quickly translated into a variety of different languages, which makes it more accessible to a larger audience.
Despite these advantages, short stories can still be overly simplistic, lacking in sophistication, and not always as good as they could be. It is also important to remember that the term “short story” does not necessarily mean that the narrative in question is under 5,000 words long. In reality, any kind of short story could potentially be longer or shorter than the absolute bare minimum length required to be considered “short.”
The Importance of Style
One of the most important things to consider when comparing literature to commercial (or more accurately, popular) fiction is style. Literary critics often point out that the great literary works of the past are vastly superior to anything that might be seen today in popular media. This is largely because the great works of the past were generally written with a much smaller audience in mind. The primary target audience for Beowulf, for example, would have been a group of upper-class, educated Englishmen in the 5th century. The style of the poem reflects this; it makes heavy use of allusions to classical sources and it is often very elegant and concise – in fact, the first 1525 lines of the poem are perfect examples of highly polished, structured verse.
The same is generally true of great works of literature. While modern films and novels often focus on topics and characters that are more universal, transmitting ideas and insights to a larger audience, the great works of literature often have much deeper and more sophisticated structures that challenge and excite the minds of the people who read them.
The Rise of the Modern Short Story
Thanks to the success and international fame of authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, as well as publishing houses like D. S. Morrison, short stories began to be published with more frequency and creativity in the 19th century. In addition to these great Russian authors, several important English writers became renowned for their short stories, among them Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Joseph Conrad. It was in this period that the short story first became established as a powerful and internationally significant literary form.
The style of these short stories varied quite a bit, but they were all characterized by a certain ingenuity, originality, and an ability to excite the imagination of the reader. For example, the American humorist Will Rogers, who was considered to be one of the best short story writers of his time, once said: “A short story should be about a main character who wants something and goes about getting it. A novel can be anything you want it to be, but a short story must be exactly that.”
The key points here are:
- The desire for the main character to become something. This could be a physical object (such as money or a car), it could be an idea (such as owning property rights or freedom of speech), or it could even be a state of mind (such as courage or confidence).
- The main character going about getting the object of their desire, encountering various obstacles, and overcoming them.
- The use of language in an innovative, imaginative way.
- Humor, especially when dealing with social or cultural issues.
Many short stories and their authors had a clear influence on literature and culture, generally pushing the boundaries of what was considered possible in both artistic and technical terms. These writers and stories influenced a whole generation of literary and artistic innovators, who in turn, continue to influence writers and artists today. For example, the short story A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was first published in 1859, inspired the French author Victor Hugo to write his masterpiece, Les Misérables, which he did not finish until 1880, resulting in a partially lost film adaptation that was finally completed in 1914.
While the short story evolved as a way to make a better living in the 1800s, the growing prominence of mass media like film and television in the early 1900s made it possible for even ordinary people to become famous and to earn great monetary success from writing alone. In 1920, the New York Times reported that “at any minute any one of half a million Americans may decide to become a playwright, a novelist, or a short-story writer.”
This was most certainly the case, and thanks to the mass media, a new generation of writers, both famous and not yet famous, could emerge.
The Influence of Film
One of the most influential groups of writers and artists in the early 20th century were the filmmakers, who worked in several different mediums, including literature and the theater. It was partly due to their work that the form known as the “the short story film” was created, a form that would later evolve into the short film.
The earliest filmmakers did not always consider themselves to be artists, as they often viewed themselves as entertainers or journalists who used film as a medium to convey information. One of the first great short story film auteurs was the German director F. W. Murnau, whose short story films, among them Nosferatu, are considered to be the founding films of German expressionism. Like the writers and artists discussed above, Murnau did not consider himself to be a pure artist, but rather a bit of a practical joker who used his films as a means to comment on society and human nature. He might have said that he was “taking the piss” out of human nature and the social conventions of the time, using the camera both to reveal and to mock the banal existence of the average, middle-class German in the early 20th century.
Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel, Dracula, is one of the earliest and most well-known short story films. It was first screened privately in Berlin in August 1920, and officially released a few months later. The first part of the story is told in a series of tight shots of the eponymous character, the Count Dracula, as he makes his way through Transylvanian village streets. In the next section, we see Nosferatu in action as he stalks his prey.
The camera does not linger on the victims of the vampire – the villagers – as they are generally just a few feet tall and clearly not in the way of the Count’s supernatural powers. Instead, we see several layers of metaphors and allusions that, when taken together, create a striking and original image that has influenced several generations of filmmakers, writers, and artists.
It is very clear that Murnau is not simply showing us Dracula; he is also showing us aspects of his own personality, as well as those of the time in which he lived. During the winter of 1920, Murnau moved to Hollywood where he would go on to make a number of famous and influential films, among them M (1931), which is often hailed as the greatest “film noir” of all time, and the original Frankenstein (1931).