Peter Hobbs: The flexible form of the short story

Peter Hobbs

It’s still a couple months before entries for the Bridport short story prize begin to find their way to me. I have some idea of what to expect in the way of submissions: the contemporary short story is still dominated by the form as we know it from Chekhov and Mansfield. The idea that the best way to write literature, to tell stories that tell the truth about life, is the approach of realism and naturalism.

But of course the short story has proved to be an almost endlessly flexible form. There’s the modernist, minimalist, oblique offshoot: stories in which nothing much seems to happen, or in which something almost happens. There’s the rich strand of surrealist, dystopian fiction, from Gogol through Kafka to George Saunders. Writers have found ways to repurpose older forms, from fairy tales to letters and diaries, their familiarity made new and strange by syntactic or stylistic brilliance. The literary short story has always flourished in genres such as crime and science fiction. And there are more experimental shapes too, as writers, responding to a changing world, have tried to push the boundaries of the form and see if it holds (why not a story composed of several series worth of fictional synopses of a TV show? Why not one composed entirely of tweets?).

Stories can be long, like those of Alice Munro which sometimes seem to contain, effortlessly, the substance of whole novels. And they can be very short – see Grace Paley or Lydia Davis – yet still retain an impact of near equal force. There are stories that contain lifetimes or generations in just a few pages, and those that take place in a single moment.

In short, the story has proved to be both a resilient and flexible form, an enduring artistic medium, always evolving to find new ways of truth-telling. It’s also a form that offers the possibility of an elusive perfection, the ideal ground for writers to develop an obsession, to learn short stories from the inside out and find some way of making them their own.

So I’m hoping to see among the prize entries a variety of approaches to writing short fiction, recognition of the fact that there are more ways than one to skin a cat. But of course what matters isn’t the type of story, it’s how form and content and style – how each sentence is written – combine to tell us something true. I have a theory too none of these things can really be separated. That style is content – the way something is told is inseparable from what is being told. And that sentences, when done right, contain some essence of the entire story in them. Each sentence tells us how to read the whole, and it’s the sentences that create the rhythm and pace of what we’re reading, that do the work of voice and character and atmosphere, and ultimately of story shape. So above all I’m hoping to find myself in the hands of writers who know to make every sentence count, and how to use them to bring a reader into their stories and tell them their truths about the world.