Every second I stare at this bookshelf is another second that I won’t spend sleeping.
Nicole is an avid night reader and it’s rubbed off on me. When I finish a book, I tend to wait until bed time to figure out what I’m going to read next. And that was my dilemma tonight.
I have a lot of unread books. It is ridiculous that I keep buying books given how many unread books I have, but I suppose that explains how I got into this mess. Over the course of the next month I will only get more.
One of the books waiting for me is short story collection. Since I do, in theory, write short stories and I did, in practice, go to graduate school to learn how to write them, I try to read as many as I can. I subscribe to a few literary journals (chock full o’ short stories) and I buy various collections like this one.
But I’m having a hard time finding the motivation to open it up, and I think it’s because I might actually hate short stories.
I’ve realized that short stories are the most pretentious of literary formats. There is a very specific window for a good short story, a very specific line that has to be walked, which makes a good short story extremely hard to write. What’s worse is that everyone writing short stories knows this, and the simple fact that they do know it makes it all the more pretentious.
The problem is that short stories can easily go one way or the other: too much or not enough. Too much and it destroys the point of the format. And, unlike poetry which is smart enough to engage the audience to the point where they are filling in any blanks, short stories that are too vague fail at what they’re doing. Poetry, at least, has a certain clarity to its vagueness. Short stories do not.
There’s a code, some kind of combination of chromosomes that make up a good short story and the slightest mistake here or there can ruin the entire line. One bad sentence can sink a short story.
Even worse, short stories exist in their own, self-perpetuating reality. The majority of people reading short stories are people who write short stories. The majority of people who edit literary magazines are also people who write short stories. The people teaching short stories are, yet again, the people who are writing short stories. Aside from Playboy and the New Yorker, the only people who actually seem to care about short stories are the ones who are writing them, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one in that group who periodically hates them.
Why are they so problematic? They’re supposed to be easier to write than, say, a novel, right? They are shorter after all. But that’s the problem. Because they’re shorter, every single word matters. Think about that. This is a format that is taunting a group of people who are already, by and large, neurotic to write something in which every single word can be scrutinized over and over again. Short stories are the finger print on a glass sliding door. They’re the tall book in a row of short books on your book shelf. They are an endless well of doubt and revision.
So why does anyone write them, particularly if no one reads them? Is it the challenge? Is it the fact that so many writers take classes on writing at some point, and those classes place emphasis on the short story? Because we are trained that we only have a few months to complete a story? Because books are for the masses, the plebes, and literary journals filled with short stories are for the chosen few?
And then there’s the larger issue: why doesn’t anyone read them? Even if the format wasn’t determined to destroy itself by maintaining some bizarre standards of readership, why are people choosing much, much longer books over short stories? Record companies are able to make money producing nothing but compilations. Why doesn’t this theory also apply towards short story anthologies?
The simplest answer I can give is this: stopping. It would seem odd that someone would be more likely to commit to a three hundred page novel than a fifteen page short story. But that’s the case. It’s the case because the reader wants to be in control, at least to a certain extent. And with a novel, you can pick and choose where you stop and where you start. Yes, there are those who prefer to stop at chapter breaks, but there’s no sense of urgency to get to that chapter break, there’s no feeling that you’ll lose something if you don’t get that far. A novel is so long that you aren’t going to read it in one sitting, so you don’t worry about whether or not reading it in multiple sittings will ruin the experience.
The same cannot be said for short stories. A short story demands it be read in one sitting. For that matter, it demands you pay close attention to it. A short story is difficult reading. Sure, it can be extremely rewarding reading for that very fact, but it still requires effort, it requires flexing brain muscles that most people aren’t interested in flexing while they read. Reading short stories is work.
Perhaps that’s the main problem: short stories have been examined and scrutinized to the point that they no longer contain the simple joys of reading, the simple joys of writing. You can examine a novel to death, too, but ultimately it’s so large and wide reaching that people are going to take from it what they want. For that matter, the market for novels is much larger. A book about wizards and a book about spies and a book about war and a book about politics can all co-exist, can all find space on a bookshelf at a store, while short stories seem so limited, or, at the very least, segregated by genre.
Hyperbole aside, I do like writing short stories, at least initially. The constant examination that comes after the first few drafts, however, tends to suck all the joy away.
But I recently submitted a short story to a contest that is, in my not remotely objective opinion, the best short story I’ve ever written (a claim supported at least somewhat by my wife, who is actually a harsh critic). The high I felt after “finishing” it was incredible, and I guess it’s the reason why lunatics continue to write in this abused format. Because reading it and writing short stories isn’t for everyone, and doing either makes us feel special.
It also makes us pretentious and crazy.