Murakami & the Merits of the Short Story Medium
As an aesthetic medium, short stories are all too often viewed as subsidiary to novels – the ostensibly higher literary form. Perhaps this is because you don’t see nearly as many short story collections lining the shelves of bookstores, topping bestseller lists, or winning prestigious literary awards.
It might also be that there simply aren’t as many great short story writers as there are novelists, that most writers are honing their craft toward the longer form because, after all, it’s perceived to be the more reputable endeavor. This ends up creating a catch-22 situation: so long as we continue to view the short story as a literary stepping-stone toward the novel – the ‘end goal’ – writers are less inclined to stick with and master the craft of the short story.
But it would be remiss not to mention the many writers who have experimented with, advanced, and mastered the short story form: Akutagawa, Faulkner, Chekhov, Poe, Kafka, Carver, O’Connor, Ōe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, to name a handful. Still, it seems that most truly great writers who’ve dabbled in both forms become pigeonholed as either a novelist or a short story writer. Faulkner wrote many brilliant short stories, but we generally think of him as a novelist; Kafka wrote a number of labyrinthine novels, but we tend to associate him with short stories.
And then there’s Haruki Murakami. Having recently released both a short story collection, Men Without Women, and a characteristically massive novel, Killing Commendatore, Murakami is perhaps the best example of a contemporary author who can write a short story like a short story author and a novel like a novelist. His short stories don’t feel like condensed novels, and his novels don’t feel like drawn out short stories. He’s able to make that delicate, necessary shift between the two forms without having one foot still obstinately grounded in the other medium. And while his novels have garnered the most attention, his forte is arguably the short story, particularly in light of the critical praise for Men Without Women and what’s sounding like a lack thereof for Killing Commendatore – at least thus far.
Approaching his short stories as pieces of writing that fall somewhere between poetry and novels, Murakami has said, “You can create a short story out of the smallest detail – an idea that springs up in your mind, a word, an image, whatever. In most cases it’s like jazz improvisation, with the story taking me where it wants to.”
In a way, Murakami’s ability to inhabit both literary forms may be inextricably tied to his writing style and methods. In typical postmodern fashion, many of his novels contain seemingly unrelated vignettes that are tenuously tied to the central story arc. While these digressions are often self-contained, they don’t ever feel irrelevant; if omitted from the narrative, the novel would feel incomplete, yet if read out of context, they would feel like well-crafted short stories. It’s an odd paradox, but I suppose that’s what Murakami is best known for.
What do you think? Do you like Murakami’s short stories or novels better? What do you think he’ll be best known for: his short stories or novels – or both? Let us know!
If you’re big on short stories or would like to be, we recommend Murakami’s new collection as well as the beautifully written short stories in one of our own collections: Still Life and Other Stories. Happy reading!