The Case for Short Stories
An interesting update on the status of the American short story
By Bruce McKinney
Many readers disdain short stories as morsels rather than meals although serious readers of short stories will beg to differ. Those people who complain are still, these many decades later, puzzling out the importance of O'Henry who incidentally comes up No. 41 on Amazon's list when you search for "Great Short Story Writers." For O'Henry who thought that Amazon was a river this would be a big surprise. Short stories are simply another way for readers to read and I personally spend about a month a year immersed in them.
Recently I read the 2004 volume of "The Best American Short Stories" and I'm going to recommend this book if not all the stories in it. An anthology of short stories is after all more a statement of its editor's taste than a reflection of the present state of short story writing in America. That said this volume and most of the volumes in this series that I have read over the years are a nice way to stay on top of this fragile field. Otherwise you will spend some time and money to read the various reviews and literary magazines that publish original fiction. I'm not quite that committed to the literary world so for me these annual anthologies are useful.
Now let's get to a beef. What exactly does "short" mean? I've read some short stories that are longer than some novels. I won't say anything mean about these people who expand the distance between the letters, increase the space between the lines and shorten the lines by widening the margins because I was a leading advocate of such page-building techniques when I was short on time and material and a minimum number of pages were required. All this said short stories are the polar opposite of the Japanese Hiku where the length is fixed and the contents vary. In the short story both vary and in The Best American Short Stories, as is always the case, they vary widely. Several are 40 pages and a few barely 10. There are twenty contributors including some big names and some great writing. John Updike still walks the stage as does the queen of darkness Annie Proulx. Alice Munro is here. There are in fact eight pieces from the New Yorker, certain proof that good writing continues to find a home there and a strong endorsement for a subscription. The only other publication that provided a home for more than one piece was Harper's Magazine and they had two. The other pieces sometimes appeared in magazines and sometimes in books. It is also possible that the editor did not look widely. I can not say.
To me short stories are hors d'oeuvres on the menu of reading that runs mostly from 150 to 1,000 pages. I most prefer the very long book that is a gem. Unfortunately I often don't know if the book is exceptional until I'm well into it and I make a practice of completing books I start, the corollary being that one must read fast. Books of short stories require no such special capabilities. Like the sign says in various New Yorker cartoons over the years, "The end is near" and you may not even have started yet.
The Case for Short Stories
A list of the authors and their stories
This year's selections are strong on description with florid, and I think often unnecessary details, that paint a picture but do not advance the story. Of course short stories aren't always going to move very far but the point is rarely to simply drape the nouns in description. For years after I first read Hemingway I had trouble appreciating his spare language and yet today, for me, it's the most difficult to emulate. I was in fact always more attracted to the Faulkner school of complex sentences and descriptive terms that allowed the undisciplined mind room to think it was succeeding. Neither school however is represented here and that is not surprising. These are once in a generation writers and this book of excellent short writing is simply the work of mortals.
That said, these stories, and the Best American Short Stories of previous years are fun to read when you are looking for a break from War and Peace.
The Best American Short Stories for 2004, selected by Lorrie Moore and edited by Katrina Kenison. Available on line and in bookstores around the world.