The Short History of the Short Story

By David Laskowski

What we know about the early colonies is due to the “short story,” a particular form of word arrangement, its primary purpose being, according to the Dictionary of Atypical Usage, “the establishment of thoughts as relating to intangible actions, often born out of ignorance.” The short story has been useful primarily because of its length which, as opposed to the novel and the novella, is relatively short, hence its name – the “short” story. From what we can tell the short story, although having its origins in the early nineteenth century, came into widespread usage between the years of 1941 with the publication of Hiram Jackson’s “My Bonny Lies over the Ocean” and 2011 which witnessed the last short story ever written, a story entitled “Apocalypse” by Zed Factor 12 about a world on the brink of environmental collapse. “Apocalypse” – although never published since the world actually ended in 2011 – is, according to ZF12’s Companion Piece XFactor6, a ribald tale about “love in the age of mutually assured destruction.” That ZF12 wrote the story in a language unreadable to everyone but ZF12 is of minor importance, as is the fact that the “short story” originated much earlier than 1941. However, 1941 is good enough for us since if we were going to date its origin some two thousand years earlier, we would really have our work cut out for us.

The short story was, we assume, a form of communication most often used by a single individual who despite his or her hatred for other individuals longed for some sort of contact. Although it appears this longing for contact was, in its execution, either pretentious or overly critical – a reflection of the individual’s loathing for these others –  we have to assume this was the result of some emotional deficiency and not indicative of their kind as a whole (although at present we have found no evidence to the contrary). From what we can tell, the short story was “published” – a process of reproducing the original story multiple times on material made from T90s (or what these infidels called trees) and bound together in what was commonly referred to as a journal or magazine. Although few magazines were published at first, they reached a critical mass in the early twenty-first century (although some have said the amount of magazines being published at the time contributed greatly to global collapse, we have seen no evidence to support such an assertion). Rather, the critical mass reached in the early twenty-first century can only really be indicative of how many people, at the time, thought of themselves as writers. That so many people thought of themselves as writers is odd considering, as far as we can tell, writing was an unfruitful occupation and brought nothing but misery and despair.

The greatest practitioners of the short story in America were two men and a woman: Daniel Marcus, a professor of literature from Coleman College in Chicago; Dick Hart, a freelance journalist based in New York; and Evelyn Hernandez, editor of the Roth Review who lived “in a quiet house by the lake.” That these three were the greatest practitioners of the short story is the result of nothing more than the amount of publications each writer had since we do not have the stories themselves. We know how many stories they published because of records kept by an overly-fastidious collector of data (a computer geek) on the world wide web (a horrendously primitive form of electronic communication that relied on 0s and 1s to perform seemingly complex functions). That we have none of these stories is not entirely true since we were able to extract fragments from the carbon matrices imprinted in the dragon’s tooth. The first fragment we found was from a short story we think was entitled “The Coffin Makers” about a small boy who apparently spends a lot of time watching “the waves gently rock his father’s boat.” Why the boy would be watching the waves for such an extended period is unknown and, frankly, very creepy.

The best we can tell is that although almost everyone and their mother wrote short stories, no one actually read them. Yet, awards were given, scholarships granted, and hands shaken. In fact, so many awards were given and so many scholarships granted that short stories were seen as indicative of something greater – in particular, the stupendously refined taste of most Americans. That no one actually read these short stories except for other writers and academics is, we have learned, actually a sign of how important these stories actually were. For example, many of these writers and academics thought television (a crude form of picture making that seemed to engage almost the entire country) was silly and not worth scholarly analysis). On the other hand, the short story, which as far as we know rated somewhere between watching paint dry and cleaning out one’s garage seemed to captivate the minds of almost all scholars.

Whatever the reason, by the end of the world, the short story was dying. The actual effects of the loss of the short story are impossible to gauge since the world so soon ended after its decline. However, with the help of a simulation built from Twitter fragments, we have been able to construct possible repercussions. The following is the first message we were able to reconstruct: “Hey, it’s, like, so cold here. OMG, I’m, like, so cold. You know I can’t believe it’s so cold. It’s like Antarctica or something. I thought it was supposed to get warmer. Dumb bears! Stupid cars!” As far as we can tell, the loss of the short story contributed to drastic changes in weather patterns, changes that most likely resulted in the end of the world. The second message we retrieved supports this hypothesis: “In L.A. Sunny. So tired. Hope my TiVo worked. Jason is so lame. My butt itches.” Obviously, the “twitterer” is responding to the change in physical transparency in accordance with the variable seismic rearranging of cosmic transference as laid out by Dr. Bjorn Bjorn in his transverse telepathic per Kelvin Kelvin. What is most fascinating about these fragments is how complex they actually are. Anyone with two brains can obviously see the dynamic denotation of their resistance figments are set off by the withholding of their banish urge. Breathtaking indeed!

Notwithstanding, perhaps the question we should ask is why the short story? We have focused on the short story because the short story, if unearthed in its original form, can perhaps show us why we, too, are heading into oblivion. The short story, we believe, in its pre-oblivion form, may offer us evidence of why our weather patterns are changing as well, and since history is nothing but prejudicial subjectivity, we might as well try the short story since we have little chance of surviving anyway (I mean what the hell, right?). Just because our most recent efforts have unearthed nothing but rampant speculation is not a reason to shut the project down. As per rule 7/BZ9er, we still have at least another par-secondary shift quark before we have to kill ourselves and our junior researchers. We also have hope, despite the injection of Putsy7, that our project will yield the results we want it to. Nevertheless, we understand the consequences if we fail.

We decided to focus on the short story because although we have been unable to find many examples from just before the collapse, we were able to salvage some of the stories considered forerunners to the contemporary short story. These include pieces written by National Chester, Nat Thorn-in-my-Side, and Edwin Alistair Potsticker. Although drastically different in subject matter, the stories share a striking similarity regards to their execution. Specifically, their stories are “genre” stories. In other words, each story follows an established set of guidelines, which dictate how the stories are to be written. These guidelines include things such as punctuation (arbitrary symbols used to order words), plot (a bizarre device used for framing the word arrangements), and morality (a comical system of do and don’ts generated in order to convince those following the system there was something greater in the universe than themselves).

Perhaps even more useful than these originators of the short story are the critics (a class consisting of intellectually challenged men and women who wrote about the short story as if it was an ex-lover) and scholars (a secret society of intellectually advanced men and women who, although constructing unbelievably complex arguments, wrote about things no one really cared about anyway) who so thoroughly investigated the short story. We, fortunately, have been able to find a few fragments of scholarly writing and, unfortunately, have found reams and reams of critical reviews. Although we have done our best to destroy these reviews, the high council ordered us to cease and desist since they apparently offer the High Council “some good laughs.”

Perhaps the best of what we have found among the scholarly writing are the essays of Prof. James Meek, a brilliant, though weak-willed man of letters … words and sentences. Meek has written extensively about the weakness of the short story in regards to how short it is. In his book, Don’t Read This If You Don’t Want To, Meek outlines why the shortness of the short story is the short story’s greatest weakness: “The short story, unlike the novel,” he writes, “has fewer pages and thus fewer words. And with fewer words, you can do fewer things.” Meek offers us perhaps the best reason why the short story might have contributed to the end of the world – “classes in the art of the short story were offered primarily to get students to enroll in the humanities since the short story, being so short, was really no work at all.” Although we realize Meek’s analysis of the short story is more about the culture surrounding it as opposed to the story itself, get off our backs, we are doing our best.

What Meek realizes is that the short story offered students a chance to get out of reading novels. It is our best guess it would have only been through novels that these students could have gained the ability to sit still for longer than fifteen minutes. Even though we are unable to sit still for longer than thirty seconds (I am so hungry) does not mean we cannot recognize (did I leave the transponder on?) when someone else (is it hot in here or is it just me?) should be doing something (did she ask me for moon-fruit or Jupiter berries?). Meek, who had years of experience teaching classes on the short story, believes he was solely at fault for “the world’s collapse.” Although we would be happy to blame it all on Meek, we cannot since Meek, we have discovered, was vacationing in Florida the week the world ended.

It is probably best to say we have wasted the Council’s time and money since all we have actually discovered is that not only did 2010 come before 2011, but after 2011, no one actually read anything longer than a e-mail (an obnoxious bumbershoot of innocuous blather sent every two seconds). To be honest, since we do not even read ourselves, it is no wonder, despite the fragment reconstruction, that we have been able to gather no information whatsoever. Reading, as everyone with a max partition fluctuator already knows, is for squares.

The real question is why we bothered. We bothered because we had nothing else to do, especially with the sun expanding and the moon imploding. We bothered because we figured that maybe the short story was what the humans were using to save their planet. Obviously, it did not work. Nevertheless, we are going to tell the High Council that the short story was vital to the survival of the human race, especially since they could not have done anything about the carbon dioxide trapped in the earth’s atmosphere heating the planet to the point of disaster (thank the almighty Glabotron that is not happening here! Thank R7Red we rely not on oil, but thick black liquid created from decaying matter! Whew!)

What I am getting at is as students of ancient literature, the study of ancient literature is all we can contribute (do not blame us; it is most likely our womb chamber’s fault). What I mean is I am not sure what we can do to save our planet, as the humans used to call it. As beings made from skin, bone, and muscle, I thought we would be immune to what killed them. I guess not. Then again, we have already spent so much time on the project we might as well do our best to close with some words of wisdom that will at least make you think we know what we are doing. Was it Zed Factor 12 or Mark Never-the-Twain-Shall-Meet that wrote, “One cup sugar, half cup milk, teaspoon of vanilla, teaspoon of salt. Mix well. Mix well?” Whoever it was, they are wise words indeed.

Next story: “Blues from a Gun, Chapter 6: Fuck and Run”


David Laskowski lives in Madison, WI and teaches at Edgewood College.

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