We are Made of Stories: A Post in Honor of Short Story Month 2011

Kay Nielsen's art for Andersen's story "The Tinder Box."

Literary writers love short stories. The general public, we notice, does not. We are told to write novels, or at the very least for heaven’s sake a bunch of stories that agents can sell as a novel. Our friends and family read our stories and declare themselves unsatisfied, left hanging, wanting more. We want something we can sink our teeth into, they say. We want something we can lose ourselves in. How can we care about a character, they complain, when she’s only around for seven pages?

But when did we (switching now to the wider ‘we’, the general public) lose our taste for short stories? And did we, have we, really? Stories are organic to our way of life, our way of being in the world.  We tell stories every single day, in almost every conversation we have with friends, family, co-workers, even total strangers. We illustrate our points through stories. We understand something better if we hear a story about it. Even commercials are likely to be stories, stories about what happens if you wear a certain brand of shoe or eat a certain brand of popcorn or drive a certain brand of car.

We’ve been telling stories since we could first speak, could first draw, could first dream. For most of human existence we’ve passed on our culture and our way of life through stories.  We taught lessons about the world and about the way we should behave in it through fables; we still do. A child’s first exposure to literature is through stories, tales told by loving relatives or read out of short picture books or invented by the child him or herself. Short cartoons in episodic form are just stories, as are weekly or daily TV shows for kids. Even later, when children first start reading longer books, those books are often just separate stories linked together in a novel form.

I certainly learned to first love stories as a child. I loved fairy tales above and beyond everything else. Not the most saccharine tales, but the scarier, darker versions. My British relatives gave me a book of tales that included the original Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the Snow Queen, Donkeyskin, and Bluebeard. Violent, grim, unsettling, wholly magical and unpredictable, these stories were terrific because you never knew what would happen next. Would the Snow Queen keep little Kay forever? Would the princess’s father force her into an incestuous relationship? Would the evil queen ogre eat Sleeping Beauty and her children? Would Bluebeard murder his new wife before her brothers could arrive in time? These stories taught me that the world is an uncertain place, that beauty goes hand in hand with horror, that unless we are very lovely or very wealthy, only our wits will save us–that sometimes good does not always play fair, or that sometimes good is only the lesser of two evils.

But the stories that drove me to start writing my own were those of one Hans Christian Anderson. If that huge, dusty old grey hardback volume is still in the library at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School, that little card in the back would show my name again and again and again–so many times that the librarian finally just started putting ‘repeat’ marks on every subsequent line. Anderson’s stories were the first to make me think about words, about the writing itself, about character and dialogue and structure, though of course I didn’t know the words for those things when I was eight years old. Anderson’s stories were even darker than the fairy tales I’d read previously. They taught me that a story doesn’t have to end happily ever after. That a tree or a tin soldier can be a main character. That animals can talk, that the weak can die when no one is there to save them, that something can be both funny and sad at the same time, and that anything, anything, anything at all can happen in a story if you want it to.

I have never stopped writing since then, but I stopped reading short stories for a long time. Not by choice, but because almost no one writes short stories for older children. I read lots of books of magic, fantasy, adventure– the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark is Rising series, the Narnia books, Diana Wynne Jones’ novels–but I would have read short stories, too, if they had been available to me. It wasn’t until I was in high school that we started reading Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Tillie Olson, etc. And the stories we read in class completely turned me off of short stories, because I thought that short stories couldn’t be anything but realism, and I didn’t want realism unless it was BIG EPIC REALISM. I’ve rarely wanted small stories realism. I later came to appreciate Moore and Carver from a craft perspective as rather brilliant writers but while I was in school I mostly wanted to escape from the world and its small, sad things. And I didn’t know any short story writers who would allow me to do that.

To be honest, it really wasn’t until just under ten years ago that I started to read lots and lots of short stories again. It was September 9, 2001.  I was in San Francisco, staying in a hostel and just bumming around the city, as part of a trip my parents gave me for my college graduation. I’d wanted to go somewhere I’d never been and just be a part of that city, by myself, exploring and writing and mostly reading in coffee shops and bars and restaurants. (And yes, I was stuck there when the Twin Towers were hit, but that’s another story.) I went to City Lights bookstore and bought a copy of a book that had a really interesting cover and sounded kind of awesome. The book, of course, was George Saunders’ Pastoralia, and I read it straight through in a couple of hours and just like every other writer my age, I was completely and totally smitten and energized and determined to read more and and more and more, if there was more like this to read.

In the years that followed I started digging, discovering Jim Shepard and Isak Dineson and Borges and Calvino and Mo Yan and Su Tong and Karen Russell and a million billion others. Then I found the indie lit community and realized there were ENDLESS SHORT STORIES WAITING FOR ME TO READ THEM. And I keep discovering more. The trail never ends. My delight never alters.

But then I also discovered something else. Something strange. With the exception of my husband, who loves short stories like I do, no one else had any interest in reading them. Novels, they said. Give us novels. I ignored them, made gifts of my favorite short story collections, watched as they went unread, unloved. If they read them and I inquired about the experience, the reader usually gave a polite, Well, they were interesting. Usually followed up with, But I’m just not really a short-story person, I guess.

You’re wrong! I want to scream when that happens. You tell short stories all the time! You just told me one ten minutes ago! But my Minnesota Nice only allows me to smile and nod, sure, sure, novels are really great, absolutely. But why better, I wonder? Even poetry is more natural for us, reflected in countless song lyrics, popular ballads, and plays through the ages.  We tell stories. We are made of stories. So why should we be so bored by them on paper? Is it movies? Did feature-length motion pictures make us long for wider scale and scope? But even flash fiction can be epic. And plays were often three hours or more when theatre was the primary form of visual storytelling.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know why there are so few of us left who want to read short stories. But for those of us who do, please join me in raising a glass to Short Story Month, and to Christopher Newgent at Vouched, and Matt Bell and Dan Wickett at Dzanc, plus all of the other awesome folks doing stuff to celebrate the short story this month. Check out their blogs and sites often, since they’re posting stuff and featuring guest posts frequently throughout May. Happy reading! Hope you discover new writers and maybe convince a friend or two that short stories are pretty great.

12 thoughts on “We are Made of Stories: A Post in Honor of Short Story Month 2011

  1. Great post, Amber. The short story is my favorite form. I love a good novel, but the story has a special place in my heart, even if I prefer the longer stories to shorter ones. Love them love them.

  2. I love short stories for the way they can build of sentences and personalities and ambiguities that would otherwise wear out their welcome over the course of 200+ pages. Those qualities are certainly not for everyone, but I also love the pure practicality of the form – there are too many authors to read and not enough time, so while I’m plodding along at page 250 of From Here To Eternity, I can simultaneously read four or five story collections without feeling like I’m losing touch with too many disparate narratives.

    Like you, Amber, I expected that more general readers (by which I mean people who enjoy books without the corresponding ambition to write one) would embrace the practicality of the short story. They fit a busy reader’s lifestyle. Recently, I began developing an untested and wholly uncorroborated theory that many general readers are put off by the demand to answer the question “did I like this?” twelve or fifteen or twenty times during the course of a single story collection. Most readers have a metric in place for evaluating novels, they get past a certain threshold where they know that, yes, I am going to plow through and finish this thing, and even if they end up feeling they kinda didn’t like it, even if they’re not 100% sure they “got it,” there’s still a sense of accomplishment. That novel is now a landmark. Rome was hot and lousy with tourists and the way they drive over there, Good Lord…but I’ll always have the pictures.

    Editing their own work, writers have to constantly ask themselves is this good enough? Is this good enough? So it’s not as much of a jump for a writer to read short fiction and answer those questions, did I like this, was this good enough? But with the brevity of a short story, general readers are left without the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a novel and they’re on their own with the “did I like this” question, and when people aren’t sure whether they did or didn’t, you get those polite, “well…it was interesting” kind of reactions. I don’t think people enjoy offering those uncertain evaluations any more than people like us enjoy hearing them, and the real shame is when readers are turned off the form (“I guess I’m just not really a short story person”) when all they really need to do is read more and more short fiction so that they can place the stories they read in a broader context, evaluate each story more confidently, and ultimately enjoy reading stories that much more.

    One reader at a time…

    • Wow, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments here, Nathan. That’s a really interesting idea–I’d love to test that somehow, but I think you may be at least partially right. The idea that people feel a sense of accomplishment after reading a big novel, even if they didn’t really like it–yes. I see this all the time. And I think you’re right–if people read more short story collections, they’ll have more for comparison.

  3. Love this, Amber. What a delight. :)

    Short stories are how we get to know others, how we let others get to know us, how we first learn about the world, how we first fall in love. I agree that there’s a disconnect between the short stories we tell ourselves about ourselves out loud and the short stories we tell ourselves about ourselves on paper. Our assumptions get the better of us. We want the escape, the epic, the heartbreaker, and we assume short stories can’t deliver all or any of that in “just a few pages.” But our assumption, as are most assumptions, is dead wrong.

  4. P.S. Perhaps you could offer novellas/novella collections as gifts instead of short story collections. They’re that yummy messy in-between, a bit easier to accept for the “average reader,” closer to novels but not quite. Novellas are my favorite form, personally. I just love me a fat-ass story, haha.

  5. If publishers are right that nobody buys short stories, how come they publish so many best of the year collections? How come we enjoy endless remakes of films based on Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allan Poe short stories? How come writers like Ted Chiang or Harlan Ellison have been able to build successful careers as writers of short stories?

    I remember far more short stories than I do novels. A good short story hooks into the mind far more than a novel does.

    But I remember someone once writing: sorry this is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it short. And I think the key is that a good short story is harder to write than a novel. In a novel you can hide poor writing or dull passages in a way that you cannot in a short story. So you have to spend longer getting it right, therefore in terms of returns for the time invested, if nothing else, a novel is going to be far more lucrative than a short story.

    • Yes! Funny that you mention that quote–sorry this is long, etc. I just yesterday read this in a book on writing–it was Shaw who said it, writing a letter to a friend. (though it may be older than that.) Either way, it’s an excellent point–and probably a reason a lot of first time writers I know start with a novel rather than starting small with short stories. And, like you say, there’s more payoff if you are successful.

  6. Twain or Shaw or whoever said it (that Google guy only knows how to repeat what he’s been told), in correspondence, it’s certainly easier to let fly and ramble on than to organize your thoughts and compose something efficient. But I’m not sure a well-written novel page comes any easier than a well-written short story page. Unlike what Paul said, I don’t think you can hide poor writing or dull passages in a novel – they still stand out, but in a novel, the dud moments exist in less of a proportion to the whole.

    Aside from the fact it’s clearly a better career move, another of my untested and wholly uncorroborated theories is that first time writers gravitate toward novels because there’s a perceived hedge, that between good and bad their work-in-progress novel can fall into a subcategory of “promising.” Even if the writing is rough in spots and some chapters aren’t up to snuff, the plot, characters, talent, style, etc. will shine through enough that an interested editor will be able to either personally smooth out the ragged edges or at least provide enough positive feedback to motivate the writer to dig in and bring their work to the next level.

    Though there are Lish-y exceptions to the contrary, I think most writers know there’s no “promising” with short stories, they need to be all-the-way good or they don’t get in the door.

    Thanks, Amber, for following up on the post (and, of course, writing it in the first place).

    • That’s a good point, also, Nathan–that novels can be promising–attention-getting, in other words–stories not so much. Probably why agents want you to write the novel, eh? Thank you for your thoughts, Nathan–lots of stuff to think about here.

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