When I worked at a previous school, part of my job as a library clerk was putting together book displays. Sometimes I displayed short story collections and was always a bit disappointed when students were uninterested, despite what I considered to be books they’d enjoy from contemporary YA and adult authors. I’ve also noticed several of my book-loving friends don’t read short fiction. Even some fellow English majors from my college days don’t pick up short fiction now that such reading isn’t assigned to them anymore. Since we live in such a fast-paced world with seemingly shrinking attention spans, I used to be surprised short stories weren’t more widely read by the readers I know until I thought more about their structure and what they require from readers.
The first short story I remember reading and loving is James Joyce’s “Araby.” I was sitting in my very first literature class during my freshman year of college and hearing those around me discuss the symbolism of the apple tree and the theme of blindness. All I knew back then was that I liked the story. The metaphors eluded me. Literary analysis is an acquired skill, one I hadn’t yet grasped. Though it would take some time for me to see things in the text that my more outspoken classmates saw in a cursory reading, I was drawn to short fiction immediately. I’ve always loved short stories for the same reason I love poetry: every word counts. For a story (or a poem) to be excellent, every word must count.
I’m in awe of writers like Raymond Carver who can write about the seemingly mundane things of everyday life with the same force and clarity he uses to write about internal brokenness and failed relationships. Every time I read Flannery O’Connor’s classic story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” I’m fascinated by the Misfit and haunted by the violence he enacts. When I read my first Alice Munro book, Runaway, I was utterly captivated by her graceful yet stark portraits of women, so ordinary in their humanity but so memorable, too. One of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read is John Updike’s haunting, 9/11-inspired “Varieties of Religious Experience.” That story is a shining example of how much characterization and depth can be contained in just a few pages.
To get the most of out what I read, I have to engage with the text. Engagement is especially vital when it comes to short fiction. I might be able to skip an occasional line in a novel and still walk away knowing what happened, but in good short fiction where not a word goes to waste, to miss a sentence or two could ruin the whole story. Perhaps it’s because short stories demand such engagement that they aren’t read more often, at least in my circle.
Any piece of good writing requires something of its reader, but I find that short stores and poetry need a bit more. Though it’s quicker to read a short story than it is to read a novel, the best short story writers–like Joyce, Carver, O’Connor, Munro, Updike, and so many others–say just as much (if not more!) in a dozen pages than some writers say in hundreds. I marvel at such an ability and am grateful for the gift of language, whether that language is used to write a 500-page novel or a 3000-word short story.
Are you a short story fan? If so, who are some of your favorite writers?