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  • Women's Work
  • Amber Sparks (bio)

I have a theory about short stories: we don't take them Seriously, with a capital "S," because they originally belonged to women and children. I don't mean that to say there aren't many male short story writers out there. But the short story feels so close to the oral tradition, to storytelling, to fairy tales and myth-making and the ways women primarily traded information, warnings, and wishes. It feels close to the way women reared children on cautionary and instructive tales. Children, after all, don't care about novels or the length of a piece of work. They care about the telling of a tale, no matter how long it might be. But don't take it from me. Critic Anne Therlault writes: "One need only look to the sources cited by the great folktale and fairy tale publishers from the late seventeenth century (a time when readers, editors, and publishers showed renewed literary interest in both fantastical stories and traditional storytelling) to know that women were, by and large, the main collectors, keepers, and tellers of these tales."

Tale-telling is often short story writing, and when we ignore short stories or regard them as "less than" (how many awards are there for short stories or for the authors who write them?), we are saying that tale-telling isn't a serious business simply because of length. Absurd. When Alice Munro had her first successes in publishing short stories, she says she lost faith in herself because she "wanted to do something great—great the way men do." And the Vancouver Sun ran a piece about her titled "Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories." Short stories. You know, women's work, the stuff we do between folding sheets and baking cakes.

And yes, I know not every criticism of the short story stems from sexism. But those criticisms, too, can be addressed easily enough—so easily it still begs the question of where all the hostility comes from. (And if you think hostility is too strong a word, ask a short story writer about their Goodreads reviews some time.) When a story can be read in a sitting, I know it seems to some that a reader can't be absorbed, submerged in the same way they can when consuming a long novel. But is that always necessary for a piece of fiction to do its work? Or can a short plunge into chaos or otherness serve as an even greater shock to the system? Besides, what has length to do with it, when time can be manipulated and made up? Think of the dreams you've had, just before dawn, a few minutes stretching into centuries. The deftest story writers can stretch time, too. But perhaps that's the problem: all this stretching of time, all this plunging strangeness, all this dreaming through fiction—perhaps it's all just a little too like fairy magic for the serious critic of fiction.

Take Isak Dinesen, for example. Her Seven Gothic Tales (1934) are marvels, strange and dark and opaque, filled with mysteries. (I would say they are fairy tales for adults, but all fairy tales are for eventual adults, so perhaps instead I'd say they are new-ish fairy tales.) The language in them is quite gothic, ornate, and yet—they don't seem written, somehow. They seem spun, wrung from the cloth of the earth, dyed and hand-painted and hung over cold stone walls. They seem as old as the oldest stories, as traditional as one can imagine.

Now, Dinesen has been dead for a rather long time, but still her stories feel suspended in time. They have more in common with Hans Christian Andersen or the brothers Grimm or the fairy stories of George MacDonald than they do with, say, Carver or Hemingway. They are a wild and very female type of storytelling, and I have no doubt that's part of why they've fallen out of favor. We regard them as we regard many stories: nice, lovely little pieces—playthings for children and the nursemaids who mind them. Of course, no one...


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