Short Stories Are NOT Short On Story
Every once in awhile someone says “Short stories are making a comeback.” But they don’t, and I don’t understand why.
One of the most famous, prolific and well-read authors of the 20th Century, and now into the 21st Century, is Louis L’Amour. He sold millions of books worldwide and in a multitude of languages. You mention his name and even nonreaders have heard it.
Louis L’Amour made his reputation with short stories.
Not to mention Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Capote, Edgar Allen Poe and countless others. Not so very long ago literary persons believed the novel was not serious writing. Short stories were king.
Today the novel is king.
And this is what confuses me. How is this possible in an age when people can’t walk from a building to their car without hunching over like apes to read short stupidities on their phones? How can it be that they won’t read a short story? It’s short. Saves time. The beginning, middle and end all come quickly – 20 minutes or so, compared to novels which usually take days. Now I have nothing against novels, I write them. But I’ve lost count of the times someone has told me they just can’t read a short story.
After much thought, I’ve decided there is no precise answer to why. Just more questions. However, there is a thing – sort of mass misinformation – that often infests the public. I have a short story collection of island stories entitled The Hero of Blind Pig Island and Other Island Stories. I liked that title, but it sold poorly. Even online reviewers avoided it. My agent refused to represent it. And the few people who did review it all seemed surprised they could appreciate short stories. Reviews typically began with “I don’t usually read short stories but Jimmy made me, and guess what? I like short stories. Really appreciated something I could read and find satisfying in a short amount of time, between jobs or when I’m waiting somewhere in the car or at appointments.”
Of course, once there is a prejudice against something, it tends to harden into reality. Like guns kill people. We hear this all the time. I own some guns myself, but mine must be different because they stay where I put them, and none of them have ever jumped up and ran out the door to conduct a massacre. They are inanimate objects. But there are many people in influential positions who blame the guns instead of the killers. If these people weren’t powerful we’d laugh at anyone that silly.
This prejudice extends of many things, and usually those things – or people – are misunderstood or held in contempt without logical reasoning on the part of those who have the prejudices. I have asked a countless number of folks why they don’t read short stories and the answers make about as much sense as guns going around killing people. But the bottom line is the same: people control much of what they do and what happens to them as a result. So, it seems we haven’t made a good case for reading short.
Okay. Let’s make it.
First, some stories, often the best ones, are short by nature. Would you listen to a joke that took three days to set up? Not hardly. A joke, and a short story, are short because that is their nature. It’s neither good or bad because it’s short. If a short man comes into a bar does the bartender say, “Sorry Shorty, but we don’t serve your kind in here?”
In the movies, short was once a prelude to every film. There were short cartoons, short news clips, short comedies like “The Three Stooges,” short previews, and of course Hollywood glamour shorts to keep the stars in our heavens. Even those have disappeared. Now we get boring, repetitive ads before films. Losing our shorts is not progress.
Second, readers love beginnings and endings with a surprise or two in-between – and that is a description of a short story. All the good stuff without waiting for it. What’s not to like?
But finally, it’s important to understand that novels aren’t written like short stories. There have been some, but not often can even the best novelists maintain the narrative thrust of a really fine short story. Each word, sentence and paragraph is much more a handmade gift to the reader than most novels. Hemingway said he never sat down to write a novel – it was always to write a short story that turned into a novel somehow.
But even if I’ve convinced you to read a short story you may have to get old ones. Publishers today ignore them and many refuse to print them no matter their quality or importance to our culture. We were all hopeful when Canadian short story author Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I’ve seen no evidence this has helped readers to accept them.
That is still a mysterious anomaly, at least to me. The time seems right. People are busy and have less time for reading. Yet, their love of stories hasn’t diminished. Millions watch television stories daily, and much of it is short stories. Jokes are still being told. So what’s the problem? Maybe it’s simple – a prejudice based on what most prejudice is based – nothing.
One short story reviewer wrote that maybe people don’t read short stories because they were forced to read such boring ones in English class. This is certainly part of the answer. Too many English teachers today are more likely to show a video than give their students interesting and exciting short fiction to read. We are busy creating nonreaders and blaming it on technology. But the fact is, there are more remarkable, thrilling and engaging stories lying unread than at any time in history.
So, here’s the challenge. Go to a secondhand bookstore nearby and ask for a good short story collection. (The chain bookstores will not likely stock short stories, or stock few.)* Thumb through the stories while you’re standing there and read a few first paragraphs. Then invest in the small cover price, and if it’s poor blame me, but don’t give up. I promise you there are hundreds of thousands of terrific short stories waiting for you to discover, and to add a new layer of enjoyment to your life.
*Short story magazines like Glimmer Train Press are also an economical way to read hundreds of the best and most recent short stories.