To See the World in a Grain of Sand

It seems that I have been living under a rock. I’m only now just discovering the fabulous Steven Millhauser. I did read his piece, “Phantoms” in the the Best American Short Stories for 2011. But I hadn’t read anything else from him. Then this weekend, my boyfriend brought home Millhauser’s collection, Dangerous Laughter, which was languishing in the used book section for the low, low price of $8.00.

I am agog.

I have some things to say about Millhauser’s style, which has inspired me to do some different things with my writing, and I’ll get into in another post. The point of this post is direct you to his essay, The Ambition of the Short Story, which he wrote for the New York Times. I only know about it because after I mentioned Millhauser to my friend Erika, she said something like, “Oh sure. Didn’t you read that essay in the New York Times?” No. I’ve been living under a rock.

The essay lauds the short story, exclaiming how wonderfully exact the form can be compared to the novel.

The novel is exhaustive by nature… The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.

Here’s a taste of the essay’s opening:

The short story — how modest in bearing! How unassuming in manner! It sits there quietly, eyes lowered, almost as if trying not to be noticed. And if it should somehow attract your attention, it says quickly, in a brave little self-deprecating voice alive to all the possibilities of disappointment: “I’m not a novel, you know. Not even a short one. If that’s what you’re looking for, you don’t want me.”

I cannot do the essay justice here. Honestly, just read it. It’s short and a joy to devour. I promise.

Photo: KevinKrejci / Flickr, Creative Commons

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5 Comments on “To See the World in a Grain of Sand

  1. The short article “Ambition of the Short Story” you link to here is one of the most kick-ass things I’ve ever read. Millhauser sets up “the novel” as an invincible Goliath, and then totally, comprehensively, and quite convincingly vaults the short story into the stratosphere, leaving the novel stuck on Earth, slowed down by scope and weighed down by far too many words.

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