Although I would like to present a kind of personal "short story of the short story" from oral tales to hyperfictions, I am not altogether sure I know, even as an alleged writer of short stories, what a short story is. I'm not alone in this, of course. It's as common a complaint as writer's block, and has perplexed half the papers I've read on the subject.
I think a short story is a fixed form of some kind, circumscribed and outdated--or "exhausted," as my friend Jack Barth would say--and is related somehow to the Victorian novel and American writing workshops. Or at least that was how I was thinking when I started writing my own first breakaway fictions, bedazzled in those days by the likes of Kafka. Beckett, and Borges, who were not, so far as I could tell, writing "short stories."
So when my publishers finally agreed to bring out Pricksongs & Descants ( 1969), I followed Borges and insisted on describing its contents as "fictions." I thought of them, in short, as belonging to a broader deeper mainstrem, and as something newly made, something fashioned. I didn't even call them "short fictions," just "fictions," meaning, I think, that these were as long as they could be, were complete: fictions. Ditto, A Night at the Movies ( 1987), though elsewhere, especially in catalogues and bibliographics, both of these books are often subtitled, though not by me, "short fictions."
But what is "short"? It is publishers who decide that usually, but what do they know about writing? What they know about--or pretend to know about-- but don't trust them at any length in that department either--is book production, and it is largely the packaging that distinguishes novels from novellas and short novels from short stories, though where any one of these forms begins and the other ends, no one can say.