Introduction: Americans Dreaming
Whenever anyone asks my opinion about the difference between novels and short stories, I tell them that there is no distinction between the genres. They are essentially the same thing, I always reply.
How can you say that? the fiction lover asks. Stories are small gems, perfectly cut to expose every facet of an idea, which is in turn illuminated by ten thousand tiny shafts of light.
But I hold my ground, answering the metaphor with a simile. A novel, I say, is like a mountain — superior, vast, and immense. Its apex is in the clouds and it appears to us as a higher being — a divinity. Mountains loom and challenge; they contain myriad life forms and cannot be seen by anyone attempting the climb. Mountains can be understood only by years of negotiating their trails and sheer faces. They contain a wide variety of atmospheres and are complex and immortal.
You cannot approach a mountain unless you are completely prepared for the challenge. In much the same way, you can’t begin to read (or write) a novel without attempting to embrace a life much larger than the range of any singular human experience.
Thinking in this way, I understand the mountain and the novel to be impossible in everyday human terms. Both emerge from a distance that can be approached only by faith. And when you get there, all you find is yourself. The beauty or terror you experience is your understanding of how far you’ve come, your being stretched further than is humanly possible.
The fiction lover agrees. She says, Yes, of course. The novel is a large thing. The novel stands against the backdrop of human existence just as mountains dominate the landscape. But stories are simple things, small aspects of human foibles and quirks. A story can be held in a glance or a half- remembered dream.
It’s a good argument, and I wouldn’t refute it. But I will say that if novels are mountains, then stories are far-flung islands that one comes upon in the limitless horizon of the sea. Not big islands like Hawaii, but small, craggy atolls inhabited by eclectic and nomadic life forms that found their way there in spite of tremendous odds. One of these small islets can be fully explored in a few hours. There’s a grotto, a sandy beach, a new species of wolf spider, and maybe the remnants of an ancient culture that came here and moved on or, possibly, just died out.
These geologic comparisons would seem to support the fiction reader’s claim that novels and short stories are different categories, distant cousins in the linguistic universe. But where did those wolf spiders come from? And who were the people who came here and died? And why, when I walk around this footprint of land, do I feel that something new arises with each day? I eat fish that live in the caves below the waves. I see dark shadows down there. I dream of the firmament that lies below the ocean, the mountain that holds up that small span of land.
I cannot climb the mountain that sits in the sea, but from where I stand it comes to me in detritus and dreams.
Short story writers must be confident of that suboceanic mountain in order to place their tale in the world. After all, fiction mostly resides in the imagination of the reader. All the writer can do is hint at a world that calls forth the dream, telling the story that exhorts us to call the possibility into being.
The writers represented in this collection have told stories that suggest much larger ideas. I found myself presented with the challenge of simple human love contrasted against structures as large as religion and death. The desire to be loved or to be seen, represented on a canvas so broad that it would take years to explain all the roots that bring us to the resolution.
In many of the stories we find exiles, people who have lost their loved ones, their homelands, their way. These stories are simple and exquisite, but they aren’t merely tales of personal loss. Mothers have left us long before the mountains were shifted by southward-moving ice floes. Men have been broken by their dreams for almost as long as the continents have been drifting. And every day someone opens her eyes and sees a world that she never expected could be there.
These short stories are vast structures existing mostly in the subconscious of our cultural history. They will live with the reader long after the words have been translated into ideas and dreams. That’s because a good short story crosses the borders of our nations and our prejudices and our beliefs. A good short story asks a question that can’t be answered in simple terms. And even if we come up with some understanding, years later, while glancing out of a window, the story still has the potentiall to return, to alter right there in our mind and change everything.
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifﬂin Comppany.... Introduction copyright © 2003 by Walter Mosley. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.