The fiction that is read in dentists’ offices and on trains is not lesser
When I picked up Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife one afternoon, I immersed myself, as I do with most stories, in two characters who built a bridge of letters between their cultures. I bowled along till the scene in which the wife visits her husband’s home town, then I took a deep breath and turned the page to find out what happened next. To my dismay, the story ended there. I had unwittingly picked up a book of short stories, not a novel.
The short stories I have on my shelves are mostly review copies or gifts from friends. Left to myself, I go long. In a novel, I accept dull patches and diversions, mostly because I have invested myself in characters who will stay a while. But when I find some good and some bad tales in a collection of stories, like potatoes sold by the bag rather than by weight, for some reason I feel short-changed.
There are notable exceptions. I first bought Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats, which contains some of her best erotica and subverted fairy tales, because I couldn’t find any of her novels that day at the bookshop. Carter was the best of the flaming magical realists of the 1980s, emotional, hectic, and bloody. I was enthralled with her jewelled prose back then, her sentences writhing with colour and sparkle and nouns pulled out of a hat, but now I like Carter better in small doses.
Nearly a year ago, I found a book of short stories by Arthur Miller, titled Presence. I knew Miller only as a brilliant playwright, and I had never heard of his short stories. But I will read anything by Miller, whether it is an election-year comment or an anecdote about a crowded cafe, and I’ve been dipping in and out of the book all year. It has stories about a boy’s tantrum, a frightened and somewhat frightening girl-woman who wants a pile of still-living fish thrown back into the ocean, and cowboys who capture wild horses to be sold as pet food. There are one or two I haven’t read, but so far, in the mighty Miller’s bag of potatoes, not a single one has gone soft.
In About Distances, an old essay that appears as an introduction in this volume, Miller talks about the genre itself. A playwright, he says, is practically on stage, “face to face with the monster”. In writing fiction, like any artist working in an unaccustomed medium, he changes the distance between himself and the reader.
He concedes that the short story is read in dentists’ offices, on trains, in one’s spare time, but he feels that’s what keeps the writer concise when the story demands it. It is a genre for the writer who wishes to “blurt out his truth in a single breath”.
Miller’s essay teaches us to better appreciate the genre, but in looking for truth in a single breath, we will also demand much more from a short story.