Here’s a tongue-twister of a question: just how short should a short story be?
When it comes to word count, the literary short story has always resisted absolute rules. Outside the specifications of individual publishers, there’s no real definitive guide to how long a ‘short’ story should be.
Instead, it could be more useful to think of a short story as a standalone work that can, as Edgar Allen Poe said, be “read at one sitting” – or as a tale that has been whittled down to its essentials in a way that makes it “almost impossible… to summarize”. Or, perhaps, to consider the defining element of a short story as not so much its length, but its effect. It could be argued that the best short stories resonate in the mind for long after the last word has been read, triggering a “complexity of afterthought” in the reader.
In short order
Given the nebulous nature of the short story form, it’s not surprising that several sub-genres have sprung up in recent decades with word counts that are more sharply defined. Since Anton Chekhov is widely considered the original “supreme artist of the short story”, it’s nice to picture these sub-genres as a series of Russian dolls, each one fitting neatly inside the other.