Writers on Writing: The Art of the Short Story

By Maurice A. Lee | Go to book overview

The Joys of the Brief Encounter
Alecta McKenzieSustained narrative. That was the term the judge of the literary competition kept using as he tried to explain why my thick collection of short stories had lost to a slim novel. Sustained narrative. The words evoke something magical, phallical, macho. Isn't this what everyone dreams of: the long foreword, the twists and turns, the drawn-out climax, and the sustained satisfaction, all leading to prizes for prowess? Meanwhile I, as a short-story writer, would like to see people fantasizing instead about the joys of the brief encounter—passion compressed and then exploding in 10 to 15 minutes. This form of engagement never goes on and on, with blah here and blah there, when specific, pointed action can be so much more satisfying. Of course, I may never be able to persuade old-fashioned judges and profit-minded publishers that the brief encounter, literature-wise, is worth exploring, savoring even, but I can still try. In this essay, I have identified a few pleasures particular to the genre.
1. When it's over, you long for more. Compare this feeling with that of the “sustained” experience, where you often find yourself thinking, “Well, that was nice, but way too long. It took all my time.” I have frequently heard fans of the brief encounter saying: “I really wanted it to continue, to see what would happen next.” Such yearning for continuation adds spice to the interaction.
2. Since there are only a few true experts at this “un-mainstream” activity, being a connoisseur or an artisan is like belonging to a highly selective secret society. After your initiation and a few trials, you never again wish to get caught up in the sustained-narrative craze. Where's the fun in doing something that every Jill or Jack is doing?
3. Masters and mistresses of the genre are always willing to try something novel and exciting, as opposed to those mired in the tradition of sustainment. In fact, as a

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