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?