In Praise of the Short Story

For those of you who don’t know (I recently learned this myself), May is Short Story Month. In the way April is Poetry Month, someone somewhere deemed May the month that we will pay attention to the oft-overlooked (and hard to publish) short story. The short story is the novel’s little sister–she has some great qualities but she will always be overshadowed and never taken as seriously as the novel. At least she’s not poetry, the weird cousin that gets forced on you even though you told your parents you didn’t want to hang out with her (kidding, not kidding).

I’ve long been a proponent for the short story, professing my love often for my short story all-stars Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, John Cheever, and Mary Gaitskill. I’ve always leaned towards short stories because I’m fascinated with the skill it takes to distill plot, setting, and characters into such an acute form. I think of the phrase “economy of words” often, a beautiful way of reminding you to choose your words carefully in light of maximum word count. Waste not, want not.

Photo courtesy NPR.org.

Photo courtesy NPR.org.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about short stories out of necessity. Working in the publishing industry, my job is books. I don’t have time during office hours to read the books I’m publicizing, so if I want to know what I’m talking about when I pitch my authors and books to the media, I have to read those books outside of the office. If I’m spending my free time reading for work, the concept of “reading for pleasure” begins to fade. This terrifies me. I wanted to work with books, but I don’t want to turn books into work. This leads me to the conundrum of finding time to still enjoy reading on top of all the work-related reading I have to do.

This is where the short story shines. On the train ride to work, I can read a story from the copy of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America my friend leant me. On my lunch break, I can pop onto The Kenyon Review‘s website and re-charge with a fifteen-minute story (though sometimes I should go outside; I forget what outside looks like when I sit in my windowless office). Suddenly this “economy of words” is more than a pleasant-sounding phrase. I have an economy of time, and I need to use some of it to read a short story that will keep me going through the day. It’s not simply that I need to fill some quota–today I read a story so I’ve proven I’m still intelligent. It’s the same way that I need to run a certain amount of times each week or eat protein or sleep well. Reading is like popping a vitamin. It sustains me.

As a writer, I often lean towards short stories as well, though now I’m currently working on a novel. The trick I’ve found with my novel is to treat it like a group of short stories. The novel is broken into four parts, each told by one of the protagonists, and each section existing as its own self-sustaining story. Instead of looking at each part as four chapters, I look at them as four individual short stories. That way when I start writing each night, I don’t become intimidated with the giant novel word count looming over my head; I simply think, “tonight, I’m going to work on Chloe’s story or Megan’s story.”

I think I’ll always be a proponent for the short story, as a reader and a writer. In the words of my hero Carver: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”

 

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