Nothing Less Than the World Itself

Below is an excerpt from a beautiful essay, "The Ambition of the Short Story," written by Steven Millhauser whose recent collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, was reviewed back in February:

In a world ruled by swaggering novels, smallness has learned to make its way cautiously. We will have to intuit its secret. I imagine the short story harboring a wish. I imagine the short story saying to the novel: You can have everything — everything — all I ask is a single grain of sand. The novel, with a careless shrug, a shrug both cheerful and contemptuous, grants the wish.

But that grain of sand is the story’s way out. That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William Blake: “All the world in a grain of sand.” From A Grain of Sand: Nature's Secret Wonder by Gary Greenberg.Think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself. In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. In that single grain of sand lies the ocean that dashes against the beach, the ship that sails the ocean, the sun that shines down on the ship, the interstellar winds, a teaspoon in Kansas, the structure of the universe. And there you have the ambition of the short story, the terrible ambition that lies behind its fraudulent modesty: to body forth the whole world. The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers.