Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Short Stories: The Literary Version of "We're Not Short, We're 'Fun Size'"

Lately I've rediscovered the joy of the short story. I've been reading a collection that I checked out of the library on a whim called Great American Short Stories: O. Henry Memorial Prize Winning Stories, 1919-1934.

It's been said that the early twentieth century was the golden age of the short story. Nearly every magazine, from the obscure to the most widely read, used to contain a short story, sometimes more than one. In recent decades, many magazines have stopped publishing short fiction. I don't know why--maybe it's a combination of changing demographics, a thirst for celebrity gossip, and a practical mindset that seeks "just the facts" in a how-to article or expose. Too bad, because I think the reading public would be enriched by a regular infusion of fiction.

Here's what I most enjoy about short stories:

*They can be read in one go--maybe two at most. I'm often tempted to read a novel in great gulping waves, either to find out what happens next or merely to reach "The End" and call it done. A well-written short story can be read through once, twice, three times, with new insights, details, and turns of phrase appearing on each pass. 

*The author of a short story is forced to write succinctly, to squeeze the most out of every word. That economy of language makes it both a pleasure to read and a lesson in how to make music with words and phrases.

*I find that short stories often pack a greater emotional whallop than novels. I'm not sure why this might be. It seems counterintuitive, but with less space to build backstory and no room at all for tangents, the reader's focus is undiluted on anything but the author's intended one-two punch.

Here are just a few of my current favorites:

The Waltz and Big Blonde, both by Dorothy Parker. One story is funny, the other's sad. In each case, Parker's trademark rapier wit shines through.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce. I first saw a film version of this story in high school. The memory still haunts me years later. A story of similar mood that affected me deeply is A Trip to Czardis by Edwin Granberry.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. A classic bone-chiller.

White as Snow by Kay Boyle. An tale of grace and dignity in the Jim Crow era.

If you'd like to take a crack at writing short stories, or to refine the ones you've already written, I recommend The Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II.

Do you prefer to read short stories or novels? Why? If you enjoy short stories, what are some of your favorites?


Framed printer said...

I love Jackson's The Lottery - it is really is a classic!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I still remember the shock I felt the first time I read The Lottery in middle school.