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.