Short stories have gotten short shrift in recent years for some reason. The beauty of the short story is that it can introduce you to characters, tell a story, and resolve itself in the course of a few thousand words as opposed to over 100,000 like a novel does. And unlike a poem, short stories aren’t written in subjective verse, and thus are easier to understand. Yet, how many of us can name a current short story writer who isn’t also a writer of longer works?
For comparison, look at someone like Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, he wrote poetry as well, but he was famous in his time for such works as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Black Cat,” which are all short stories. Indeed, he never wrote a full-length novel, and yet he’s seen as one of the premier writers not just of his time but of all time. Another example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous writer of the Sherlock Holmes series of short tales. His tales have spawned a slew of movies and television shows that have been wildly popular as well.
But name me someone in the 20th or 21st centuries who is renowned as a short story writer in his/her own right. The odds are that you can’t, or maybe you’re one of the few faithful readers of short fiction. Time was when we would go to the library and get out a magazine where there would be short stories, or a condensed book that had several novellas/short stories in it. Then in school we would read stories like “The Monkey’s Paw,” and we would be fascinated by it. But even that was written ages ago, in an age long before this modern world.
I remember when John Grisham released his book, Ford County, and how I was looking forward to it with such excitement and anticipation, because it was a collection of short stories instead of his standard novels. You see, I have something to admit. I absolutely adore short fiction (even short short fiction), and I don’t care who knows it. I love the nuance of the genre, how a good short story writer can weave the tale in such a way that it’s both intensely detailed and succinct in ways that novels could never capture.
Another one of my favorite authors — Bentley Little — also came out with a book of short tales, entitled The Collection, after many of his fans specifically asked him to do just that. You see, he was a short story writer first, and had many of his short stories published in various magazines and journals. Eventually someone saw his work and signed him to write novels, but he always remembered his roots. And the short stories he weaves are phenomenal.
When I was studying to be a teacher, I had a mentor teacher who knew I enjoyed short stories so she bought me a collection of Best Short Stories (of whatever year it was) as a goodbye present. I devoured those short stories, even though there were over 30 of them in one volume. Some were good, some were bad, and some were in-between, but none of them was boring. They kept my interest, for one reason or another, all the way through the book. Since then I have begun collecting those volumes, and now I have over 10 of them from different years. Their spines are worn from my reading and re-reading them almost religiously.
You’ve probably guessed it by now, too. Even though I have two of my novels published, my first love was the short story. In fact, I’ve written over 100 short stories already in my life, each one as special as the next, every one like one of my children. Just the ability to write about these characters who have lives before they meet me and lives after is magical. I imagine I’m just a photographer taking a snapshot of a moment in their lives, and they become my friends for that small moment. Even if I don’t like them as people, I at least get to know them, and I enjoy the learning experience.
So, why are short stories getting short shrift these days? I think too many people don’t want succinct tales, especially in this age where the serial novel is king. We want more, not less, from our reading experience. We want to get a character and follow them over the course of several really big novels instead of over the course of well-written short stories. Holmes wouldn’t last in this world, I’m afraid. Or maybe we should just try and revive the short story, resuscitate it like we did the ’80s. It could happen, and if it does, I’ll just say, “I told you so.”