I was looking at my laptop, browsing books, ready to order something. Our older son asked me what I was doing. I told him I was going to order a book that would hopefully arrive in a few days.
“But you don’t read books,” he said.
I managed to hold back my tears.
Our kids see me reading all the time, they just don’t know that’s what I’m doing because I’m doing it on a tablet, which they equate with games.
Given that I am, you know, a writer, I figured I should start reading some physical books ASAP. Like any good reader, I have overflowing bookshelves filled with books that I have never opened. I could read actual, physical books for the next few years with just the ones I already own.
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 something about it is holding me back. Something about short stories is rubbing me the wrong way.
What’s the deal with short stories, anyway?
Short stories are perhaps 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 makes it all the more pretentious, as if there’s a secret decoder ring for short stories that not everyone gets in their Cracker Jack box.
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 beauty 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. It’s a balance, 3 people on a life raft made for 2. One bad sentence can sink a short story.
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. It seems like the only people who really care about short stories are the ones who write them. Imagine if they stopped.
Why are short stories 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.
Why does anyone do this to themselves, particularly if the audience is so insulated? 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?
Or maybe all of these questions is what makes them cool and writing them — writing them well — makes you nearly as cool.
Short stories aren’t singles
Why DO people choose 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 masochistic format. Because reading it and writing short stories isn’t for everyone, and doing either makes us feel special.
We’re also pretentious and crazy, but the short stories didn’t do that on their own.