Who Took My Shorts?
I love short stories. I read them. I write them. I listen to them in the car and at the gym. There’s been talk in literary circles of late that short stories are making a comeback. With publishers tossing 600-page door stops at readers and being reluctant to gamble on single-author collections and anthologies it looked for a while like short stories were in decline. Magazines devoted to fiction were disappearing from newsstands. Sure, readers had a brief love affair with George Saunders, Karen Russell, Jumpa Lahiri, and Lauren Groff, but novels sell better than story collections and today’s publishers are all about sales. Bennett Cerf is probably spinning in his grave. Fortunately, a number of magazines and journals devoted to short fiction survived, and now, web-based magazines are popping up all over.
Is A Short Just Short?
A short story isn’t a stripped-down novel or a vignette. It still needs a beginning, middle, and ending, but telling a story in fewer than 10,000 words requires the writer to be concise while holding to the writers’ adage of “show, don’t tell.” Consequently, a paragraph carries the weight of a chapter. Each word must be carefully chosen. Think of the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle. Every element in a short story should support the narrative. No extraneous details allowed.
Another trait of the well-written story involves theme. Most fiction has both an obvious theme and a subtextual theme. The protagonist in a hero’s journey may encounter dangerous obstacles in his attempt to right a wrong or save the innocent(s), but the subtext of these stories is often a lesson about perseverance or friendship or self-esteem. The hero grows and learns. Frodo Baggins anyone? Parables, fairytales, and fables* all teach life lessons. The short stories I like to read do the same. And in today’s fractious world, we could use a few life lessons.
Who Likes Short Shorts?
I love anthologies. There’re like a smorgasbord. You might not like everything, but there’s plenty to try. The “Best American Short Stories” series is a good place to start. Every year since 1978 the editors have picked twenty or so stories to reprint from literary journals. Similarly, there’s a “Best American Mystery and Suspense” series with stories from a variety of magazines including the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. Both of those are good choices, though I’m partial to “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine” since several of my crime stories have appeared in its pages. As for literary journals, your local bookstore should have a selection. In addition to short fiction, you’ll likely be treated to short-short or “flash” fiction and poetry. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a literary journal I recently edited; “Litbop: Art and Literature in the Groove” showcases art and photography as well as fiction and poetry.
As for what authors/stories to look for, let me give you just a few of my favorites. With the holidays approaching, O. Henry and Damon Runyon stories are good bets. Looking for the beginnings of feminist fiction? Check out stories by Kate Chopin and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Humanist science fiction? Ray Bradbury, of course. My two favorite crime stories are by authors who aren’t generally associated with crime fiction; “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. And for a short course in short story writing check out “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” in which brilliant short story writer George Saunders dissects stories by Chekhov and three more Russian masters.
So pour yourself the beverage of your choice, find a comfy spot to spend a little time, and get your shorts on!
*NOTE: Check out reruns of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show for parodies of fables and fairytales!