What’s the story?

Laura Miller is one of my favorite reviewers of fiction.  Her reviews consistently show evidence of a reader engaged in an enthusiastic, thoughtful relationship with whatever she’s reading, even those books that don’t pass muster with her.  Earlier tonight I came across a review she’s written of Connie Willis’ most recent collection of short stories, The Winds of Marble Arch, where she posed this thesis as the context for how she would come to discuss the collection, and Willis’ writing:

Perfection is the curse of the contemporary short story. Decades ago, the form ceased to be a type of entertainment, offered by popular magazines as an alternative to listening to the radio or writing letters on an evening at home. It has since become a discipline. Today, the literary short story must be ferociously controlled and impeccably tasteful. Its appropriate subject is the ineffable sadness of existence and the unspeakable, tender hopelessness of human connection. It is an object of contemplation, even a cipher to be decoded, because whatever the author is trying to communicate must never be made too clear; delicacy, and mood, is all. In other words, the short story has turned into the narrative version of lyric poetry.

I was immediately interested in this paragraph and all that it was packing into it–what seems to be a fascinating discussion as to the state of the contemporary short story.  In some ways I was very much in agreement with Miller’s assessment of the modern short story turning into the narrative version of lyric poetry, and was excited to read on.  Of course, the review of Connie Willis’ collection followed, though, which was an insightful review in and of itself (Miller’s forgiving analysis of the collection having gems cluttered up with some stories that didn’t seem to need to be collected at all is, in my opinion, a habit or tic of scifi/fantasy short story collections, which often seem to include absolutely everything a writer has written and published over a period of time, rather than having been crafted into a particular book of their best work) but I did so wish to be carried along in her first paragraph’s discussion of the contemporary short story, its relationship to the museumed status of lyric poetry, and what sorts of phenomena this implicates in readers’ reading habits, as well as how writers have responded or failed to respond to the form losing a significant amount of a once huge readership for the form.

I absolutely love the short story, and wish it were what it was in yesteryear, a form of literature widely read and talked about by many, perhaps the way movies and albums are talked about these days, I imagine.  But in this fast-paced world I do wonder why the short story is not, in fact, more popular than the novel, which takes a greater amount of one’s time and energy to finish reading.  I’ve read lots of theories as to why the form’s audience continues to wither, but I’m never truly satisfied with any one of these theories, and don’t have any of my own that satisfy me either.  So tell me, do you read short stories regularly?  Why do you seek them out, and where do you find them?  Magazines and anthologies, or specific author collections, or anywhere and everywhere?  If you don’t read short stories (but do read novels), what is it about the short story that is unattractive for you?

You can read all of Laura Miller’s review here.

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18 responses

  1. My theory is that short stories take more work to start — you have to imagine a whole new set of characters and places. If you haven’t got much time in your schedule, it may be easier to sink back into a much longer work. I suspect for many people the pleasure of a story in progress also outweighs the pleasure of a story finished.

  2. David, do you mean “harder” as in, there are fewer short story or story collections published and carried on the shelves of book stores, hence “harder” to find ones you want to read because there is less choice? Or “harder” because there are less writers practicing the short story whose work you really love compared to the vast amounts of novelists working whose books you love? Sorry, trying to get the right read on what you’ve said.

    Niall, your view that it takes more work to start short stories rather than re-enter a novel in progress is interesting to me because it’s from a reader’s point of view of why short stories are more work to start, but I’ve come across a similar line of thought about writing short stories as well. Garcia Marquez, in his introduction to his collection Strange Pilgrims, says much the same thing, only about how it takes him as much energy to start a short story than it does a novel, and that’s why it also takes him longer to put a collection together, more time than it takes him to write a novel.

  3. I have never liked the short story form – I have abandonment issues. Beginning in my early days as a reader I had this aversion to the form. This extends even to shorts by my favorite authors, I cannot bring myself to purchase their short story collections. I get too involved with the characters. The story is over and that is it and I just cannot stand not to know more.

    I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – I absolutely hated it to end. Ignoring my short story issues I bought The Ladies of Grace Adieu last year; I have yet to pick it up, other than to dust around it.

    That being said, I do love McSweeney’s . I buy it (it is my favorite choice for interesting birthday gifts) and read the short stories.

    Judy

  4. Chris — harder in the sense that if I walk into a medium-to-large bookstore, I can be pretty sure of walking out in ten minutes with a novel that will keep me entertained at least through lunch: there’s a fair selection, that selection’s easy to browse, and you don’t have to buy anything else to get the novel you want.

    The short story selection is probably worse, certainly no better, hard to browse, and you can only get them in assorted bulk lots. And even if they were as easy to browse and buy as the novels, the per-word effort would still be much higher.

    It’d be different — once a month, anyway — if there was a magazine I could count on to be mostly full of stories I liked, I suppose; but I haven’t found it yet. Or if I wasn’t so picky. Not to mention fickle.

    I expect that in the Saturday Evening Post days, people read differently. Fewer choices, more willing to eat whatever was set in front of you. I understand that a hundred or two hundred years ago it wasn’t too uncommon to subscribe to a publisher and get whatever they put out, so maybe they used to read novels differently too.

    (How old is the short story, anyway? — in something like its contemporary published form, I mean, not harking back to Chaucer and Boccaccio.)

  5. David, thanks for elaborating. And the modern short story–appearing in print venues, that is–began in the early 1800s. (At least this is what Wikipedia has recorded. Not the best source, I know, but a quick reference tool for the improvisational!)

    I think, though, that it wasn’t a case of too few choices, and a willingness to eat whatever was set in front of you. I think that it was simply a more readily available art form, and in the advent of film and the burgeoning music industry–where the lyric poem has disguised itself in order to live in modern commerce–people find that they can be entertained with short stories and poetry in these two forms without actually having to read–which is a rather complicated learned skill that requires a certain amount of attention and engagement with the reader’s imagination in a way that film and music don’t necessarily require. I think novels were read differently and that you could order an entire publisher’s list of books each season probably because production technology made it so that the sheer amount of books a publisher can release these days in a given season may have been their entire output for a year in the past.

    I don’t have a particular magazine I feel I can count on either, though, but I do have particular short story authors that I will buy a magazine in order to read, or a collection for sure.

    Judy, I understand your aversion to the form is mostly due to your personal joy in the immersion in a story for a longer period of time, I think. I can relate. I love being in a good novel and getting to know characters and their worlds, and novels are good at giving that extended immersion experience. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell too! I bought The Ladies of Grace Adieu, as well, and read the stories. Give them a try. They’re really quite good. Actually, I had read several of them before I’d even read her novel, because they appeared in anthologies I read years ago. They were fun to revisit again. She has a wonderful sense of language. It’s as if Jane Austen had decided to write fantasy stories. I love it.

  6. I’m a voracious reader, and I read more short fiction than anything else – something like 3/4 anthologies or collections for every novel, and that’s not counting print and online magazines. The fact that the first handful of books (nearly all genre books, too) that I can recall really taking a hold of me were anthologies or collections probably has a lot to do with it; I fell in love with the form, and I can’t imagine ever abandoning it. It’s led me to novels, too; I also first read Susanna Clarke in anthologies like Starlight and YBF&H, and there’s a good chance I might not have picked up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell if Clarke’s short stories hadn’t worked their magic on me.

    As for finding good short fiction to read, I’ve never really had a problem there. I’m discovering new writers all the time (new as in current as well as older but new to me) – I come away from every anthology I read with at least a couple of new names to look out for.

    Take a look – here’s my just finished/just started/soon to start reading list:

    Exotic Gothic, Ed. Danel Olson (Ash Tree Press)
    Interzone #214
    Postscripts #13
    Down Here in the Dream Quarter, Barry N. Malzberg
    The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, Barry N. Malzberg

    After that I’ll try to squeeze in at least one novel…

  7. The short story has many parents. Once while answering a reference question I found, within the space of a few minutes, Hoffman, Gogol and Poe all credited with developing it. The consensus, though, was that as a literary form it’s relatively new – less than 200 years old. The time of its great popularity has, I think, passed. Spec Fiction was mainly a short story form when I started reading it over fifty years ago. And Spec Fiction was a small part of the flood of fiction magazines. I believe its centrality is also gone. In legend, after Salinger’s story “Franny” with it’s perhaps pregnant co-ed protagonist was published in the New Yorker, mothers up and down the Eastern Seaboard forbad their daughters from attending the Harvard-Yale game weekend where the dirty had apparently been done. It’s hard to imagine any story having that kind of effect now. And yet a majority of the contributors to this discussion (including Mr. Moles), with more profitable and perhaps better things to do with our time sit down and write short fiction. Why is that?

  8. I am not a fan of the short story form. I to am a voracious reader and I am often asked why I don’t appreciate the form? My response in the past has been because I hate endings and in a short story they come way too soon. My preference is a a 500 page novel; something that I can get lost in However, I must say that I believe that Laura Miller’s analysis articulates the subconsicous reason that I don’t like to read short stories; as she says they are often about the “ineffable sadness of existence”. I have no problem with a bit of existential angst, but I prefer it placed within hundreds of pages of context. I think that it is interesting that the subject of the “short story” has garnered such an interesting conversation. Thanks!

  9. Thanks, Alan, for representing the predominantly short fiction readers out there.

    Rick, I think you’re assuming some of the names on this list are other people. I’m not sure if it’s writers who are the majority in this discussion. I know you, David and I are, but I’m not sure if Alan, Debra, Judy and Niall are sitting down to write short stories, and they would make up the majority if they aren’t short story writers, which, from some of their comments, I don’t think they are (Judy and Deb don’t care to read the form, for example). But I do know that other writers are reading this discussion, and that many of them write in the short story form even though it’s not a widely read form and not as profitable as novel writing, so it’s a good question to ask why we do it anyway. I myself love a good short story, the shape and poetic compression, the feeling that I’ve got a novel out of such a short space, if it’s done right, or reading a particular kind of voice that perhaps a novel wouldn’t accommodate because of the sheer difference in length. I think there are some voices in writing that won’t work at long distance, but in a short distance race they shine.

    Deb, I think Laura Miller’s analysis of the contemporary short story often being about the “ineffable sadness of existence” is mainly predominant in “literary” publications. I find less of this sort of story in genre publications, or in commercial publications like Zoetrope, or in strange/wonky publications like McSweeneys (great read, that one, Judy!). But that version of the contemporary short story she makes mention of are the sort I do see out there in a lot of “literary” journals, university journals etc. If it’s only about the “ineffable sadness of existence” it probably won’t get very far with me, though I do admit being a sucker for anything ineffable, whether it’s sadness or some other emotion layered over it. I do like things to happen, and interesting voices with particular stories to be told. I think they can be captured in short stories as well as novels, but perhaps the thing a novel does that the broader reading audience enjoys is the many tracks of narrative a novel can lay down over the course of it, whereas the short story is following one or maybe two of those tracks.

    I’m not sure why in the end, which is why I asked, because I do love both forms equally, for different reasons. I like poetry too, and comic books. I guess I just like reading, as long as it’s done well, in any form. 🙂

  10. For the record, I don’t write. (I used to try, occasionally, but per Gary Wolfe’s introduction to Soundings, there is little as liberating for a would-be reviewer than to realise they have no talent for fiction writing themselves.) And, also for the record, I love short stories, and wish they were more popular than they are; but then, I like the charge of novelty that comes with them, although I do find novels easier to read when I’m tired (and non-fiction easiest of all, in general).

    Following on from David’s point about short story collections being hard to browse, I’m quite taken with the idea of there being a “collections” section in bookshops, not broken up by genre or subject, just arranged by author — wouldn’t that be great?

  11. I do write, and have done since my teens. Looking back, there wasn’t too much time between progressing from being an occasional reader to a dedicated one and sitting down to write stories of my own. Well, trying to….

    As much as I’d love to see it, I find it hard to imagine bookshops – the big chains, anyway – dedicating an entire section to short fiction collections. It would be something, though; Aiken next to Akutagawa next to Asimov, Barthelme next to Borges next to Bradbury, Carter next to Collier next to Conrad…

  12. I have noticed (here and in other venues) that people who don’t like the short story form go on about how they don’t like endings, how they like to be immersed etc etc. This to me represents quite clearly what I like to call the “tyranny of the novel.” Because the novel has become such a vaunted literary form, the ways of reading things have been affected. I never read a short story to be immersed in something. I read them because they usually have a strong and unequivocal “point” or statement to make, or at least arrive at some point that makes you think. I think the short story is therefore much more intellectual than the novel. The novel CAN of course be intellectual, but I think the form’s strength is in its appeal to the emotions. This is why it annoys me when people read the form and say that it is not “immersing” them or that it ends too quickly for them to be taken away…I don’t think the point of the short story is to “take you away”, I think the best short stories take you into yourself, ie, introspection etc. Realising that the short story is NOT a novel and reading the form accordingly is the first step to appreciating it I reckon. 😉

  13. Good points, Matthew. I think they really do different things, and have different appeal. I’ve noticed as I write in both forms that I get a different sort of pleasure and experience in the writing of them as well. At one time in my life I think I probably would have sided on being a reader who prefers short stories to novels, but at this juncture in my life I can’t side with one over another. I like them both equally for different reasons.

  14. I don’t know about putting together a section in the bookstore that is collections organized by authors, but I will see about at least finding an endcap or display space we can get dedicated to collections. If anyone wants to advise on the books that are a “must”, email me.

    I am always willing to hear about what authors and readers want to see in a bookstore.

  15. I asked this morning at our meeting- we have at least two different areas where you can find anthologies and small collections of short stories at Barnes & Noble- but they said I can still do a small display.
    We are having a Bookfair for Youngstown City Schools Sunday during the African American Read In that will include a nice display.

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