This, my post title, is not my question. I don’t think I would ask a question like that because I don’t suppose there’s an answer. But Julio Cortázar asks it in his essay, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” (taken from New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles May), and he can ask any question he pleases, and I will follow along to see what he says.
To find the answer, he says we can look to those stories that stick with us through the years: “[T]he years pass,” he says, “and we live, and forget everything else but those little, insignificant stories, those grains of sand in the immense sea of literature are still there, throbbing, pulsating inside us.”
He says we all have our own collections of unforgettable stories. Cortázar’s list includes work by Hemingway, Poe, Borges, Dinesen, and Tolstoy (but perhaps not the ones you’d suspect). “Why do they remain in my memory?” he asks. “Think of the stories you haven’t been able to forget and you will find that they have the same characteristic.”
Before I provide Cortázar’s answer, I want to pause and think of those stories that I can’t forget, and to see if I can identify that key characteristic that they share. In fact, this makes for a nice How-to-become-a-writer exercise:
What are those unforgettable stories that continue to throb and pulsate within you?
For me, hmm…
Herta Müller’s “Black Park,” “The Street Sweepers”
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “The Bucket Rider”
Bruno Shulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado”
NOT James Joyce’s “The Dead” (I feel like everyone cites this, and I just don’t love it or remember it at all.)
Aimee Bender’s “Ironhead” and “Dearth”
Alice Munro’s “Minesetung”
Maria Luisa Bombal’s “New Islands”
Clarice Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World”
Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”
Yuri Olesha’s “Lyompa”
Veronique Tadjo’s “The Magician and the Girl”
Brock Clarke’s “Plowing the Secondaries”
Miranda July’s “Majesty”
and so on…
What is the common characteristic of those stories?
They’re all some version of anti-reality: magical realism, surrealism, absurdism. Many of them have lines that get stuck in my head like the refrain of a pop song. They all have unforgettable images: potato-kids, teeny-tiny woman, dying woman on the snow, giant insect, bucket rider. These images take hold, and hold, and don’t let go. They all kind of break my heart.
Which might have something to do with Cortázar‘s answer:
“They bring together a reality which is infinitely more vast than that of the simple anecdote.” (In the passage, he is primarily interested in subject matter, and how different subjects open up a story to larger meanings. So, there’s more to it, but this is the heart of his claim.)
Again, these are not necessarily the Greatest Stories in the World, but the unforgettable ones. Cortázar even uses the word ‘insignificant.’ Would you rather write a Great Story or an unforgettable one? C’est la differance?