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Why Short Fiction?

Updated: Jun 5

The College Board just announced that the AP Literature and Composition exam will consist of only the second essay, the prose fiction essay, where they pick a passage from a novel or short story and ask for analysis. It made me wonder why not the essay on a poem or the essay on a novel of choice. Maybe it was random. It could be because short fiction involves a little bit of poetry and a little bit of the novel. Whenever I start reading fiction, I immediately ask myself who is telling the story, and why.

In The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, we start with the story of a pregnant mother, but later learn that her first child, a boy, will be our protagonist. The third person narrator allows us to shift perspectives to get the full picture – we need the real thoughts and feelings of all the people in his life to understand who he is.

In the novel Emma, Jane Austen tells the story mostly through the eyes of Emma, and not her potential love interest, Frank Churchill. We only get his point of view in a letter late in the novel. We laugh at Emma’s blunders, but then we have to laugh at ourselves for making the same mistake as her, for failing to see the complete reality.

Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse, allows us to jump consciousnesses from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes from sentence to sentence, and sometimes within one sentence. Sometimes we’re not sure whose voice we’re listening to. Sometimes it’s not one voice, but two.

This is the magic of fiction. Depending on the story, the author must pick and choose what facts and thoughts the audience will know and not know. This allows us to go beyond the reality we face on a daily basis – we only encounter one consciousness, our own. We can try to enter the consciousness of another person, but we need literature, or magic, to truly enter.

Fiction forces us to consider what might happen when we don’t get the full story. In “Bad Girls” by Joyce Carol Oates, three sisters break into their mother’s boyfriend’s place and when he catches them, he grabs one of them before the other two get away. The story is not told from her point of view, so the reader must decide for themselves what happened, as we always do in life.

Then there’s the simple, easy, first person narration. You feel like you’re getting the full story, but it’s the most incomplete and limited reality that exists in fiction (unless, of course, the narration has multiple first-person narrators). "An Encounter” by James Joyce is one of my favorite short stories told in the first person. A few schoolboys pretend to play war games at night and get in trouble for smuggling comics into class. Here’s the explanation for why the narrator decides to cut school with his friends:

This rebuke during the sober hours of school paled much of the glory of the Wild West for me and the confused puffy face of Leo Dillon awakened one of my consciences. But when the restraining influence of the school was at a distance I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me. The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.

After they cut school, they sit to have lunch and soak in the sights of Dublin:

We pleased ourselves with the spectacle of Dublin’s commerce—the barges signalled from far away by their curls of woolly smoke, the brown fishing fleet beyond Ringsend, the big white sailing-vessel which was being discharged on the opposite quay. Mahony said it would be right skit to run away to sea on one of those big ships and even I, looking at the high masts, saw, or imagined, the geography which had been scantily dosed to me at school gradually taking substance under my eyes. School and home seemed to recede from us and their influences upon us seemed to wane.

We need third person narration to get the full story and we need first person for these kinds of declarations. The narrator longs for disorder and adventure. We might not be able to give our students disorder and adventure, but Joyce forces us to think about the connection between education and experience. How education is geography. We draw maps so students can see more clearly when they go out and experience reality.

A person may express their feelings in conversation. They may write us a letter or play a song. If you grew up in the 90’s, they might make you a mix tape. Short stories are the ultimate mix tape. They give us slices of styles and voices so that our students know what they’re looking at, no matter what they read.

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