How long is a short story?

My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?

So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.

From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:

  • Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
  • The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
  • The Answer is No: 1600 words
  • The Time and the Place: 3600 words
  • Blessed Night: 3600 words
  • The Ditch: 2600 words
  • Half a Day: 1600 words
  • The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
  • The Lawsuit: 2200 words
  • The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
  • A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
  • By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
  • The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
  • The Wasteland: 3600 words
  • The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
  • His Majesty: 1200 words
  • Fear: 4400 words
  • At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
  • A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
  • A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words

That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.

Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:

  • Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
  • The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
  • The End of Something: 1050 words
  • The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
  • The Battler: 3150 words
  • A Very Short Story: 700 words
  • Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
  • The Revolutionist: 350 words
  • Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
  • Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
  • Out of Season: 2100 words
  • Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
  • My Old Man: 4200 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
  • L’Envoi: 150 words

That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.

So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.

I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.

Perched

A crowd had gathered. I couldn’t see why at first so I moved closer. They seemed to be gathering about a tree. Of course a crowd standing around a tree is nothing to do with me, but I moved closer anyway. There were about ten or fifteen people, pointing and – not shouting – but raising their voices at the tree’s upper boughs. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the tree, there were branches and the branches had boughs and the boughs had leaves, which were just turning the colour of autumn, but none had yet fallen. It seemed a perfectly ordinary tree, with bark and little growths of lichen. But there it was: a crowd, pointing and raising their voices at a tree.

It’s nothing to do with me, but I moved to the edge of the crowd. There was nothing unusual I could see about the crowd either. They seemed to be people just like me, with clothes on their backs and rings on their fingers, with handkerchiefs in their pockets and some with ties about their necks. One woman in particular, wearing a head scarf, was pointing high up into the tree and almost shouting. I followed her finger and saw a tree with leaves and boughs and branches, with bark and with lichen and a man in a bowler hat.

He was perched high up in the tree with his fingers curled around the branch like a bird. He was frozen still, but his muscles were taut as if he was about to fly away. Which of course he wasn’t, because, aside from being a man in a bowler hat perched in a tree, he looked perfectly normal. In fact, I found my hand nervously moving to my own bowler, as if my choice of headgear might bring association with this most odd fellow.

The crowd, as I said, were not shouting, but were speaking in raised, almost coaxing, voices to the man in the bowler hat. Perhaps this was what made him look slightly tense. He seemed to want to make the flight, but was nervous of his ability; a nestling, needing a push. I noticed that the woman in the headscarf was also wearing an apron. She held a wooden spoon in her right hand and, as I said, was pointing at the man.
‘What are you doing bird man? Get back to work! Stop wasting our time! Come down and we’ll forget the whole thing!’

For the first time since I got there, the man in the bowler hat moved. With a quick shuffle he edged a little further along the bough, which shook it’s leaves. One or two may have floated down on to the heads of the crowd.
‘Come on,’ the woman with the wooden spoon was speaking again. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go, bird man! Come back down – you can have the rest of the day off – I’m sure the office won’t mind.’

This provoked no discernible reaction from the man in the bowler hat in the tree. And it was nothing to do with me, but the woman in the apron spoke again.
‘We’ve called your wife – she won’t be impressed at all. She’ll leave you for sure if she finds you sitting up in a tree when you should be at work! And what would your children think?’

The woman in the headscarf shook her wooded spoon and the crowd rumbled. The bird man flicked his eyes over to me, I’m sure. There was an awful look in them. an awful pleading. I couldn’t look back, it was painful, so I just looked down. It’s nothing to do with me anyway, a man in a bowler hat in a tree. The woman in the apron with the wooden spoon raised it still higher.
‘If you won’t come down, bird man, we’ll bring you down!’

And with that she bent down and picked up a stone. It was just a small stone, but she was accurate. The bird man made a funny noise that could have been a squawk, but couldn’t have been because men in bowler hats don’t squawk, not even when they are in trees. A few more stones flew from the hands of the crowd. Some hit, some didn’t. The bird man flapped his arms in defence and his branch lurched. A few leaves floated to the ground.

The woman with the apron seemed unimpressed with her ballistics and directed the crowd to the tree trunk itself.
‘We’ll shake him down!’

Well, there’s nothing for me in a crowd looking at a man in a bowler hat in a tree. It’s nothing to do with me. I thought I should walk away, so I did. I felt the crowd surge forward. From behind me I heard the rumble of a tree, the heavy rustle of boughs and the light falling of leaves. Then an inhuman squawk, a loud thud and a cheer. It’s nothing to do with me, a man in a bowler hat in a tree.

Poem of Triumph for Maya

I pat my brow and take a bow and all the world’s beneath,
I take my hat and pat my cat and then I’ll brush my teeth.
After the show, after the climb and reach –
Do I dare to eat a peach?
Things like these – like playing up (not throwing up),
Learning to love and learning to teach –
(And here’s another – hand in hand with mother – walking on the beach) –
Seem too short and all we’re taught
Is hold on, hold on…

Office Haiku

Even mindless jobs
Need concentration and an
Eye for detail.

***

The office is hushed;
A bustle of lowered heads,
Slowly wasting time.

***

Query: How to log?
Each individually,
Or all together?

***

Wait for the download,
Watch the megabytes drip through.
Stare out the window.

***

Coordination,
Focused concentration and
Organisation.

***

Distant voices are
Arguing loudly about
Nothing important.

***

Disappointment is
Someone else appointed to
Do your job better.

***