Grab Bag: The Story on Short Stories

Amendment: How terribly embarrassing! A commenter points out that the Times piece referenced below is actually from 2003. And yet, I’m not sure how much has changed. Agents remain leery of short-story collections. Authors are still guided toward the long form, if they’re not getting there on their own. My librarian, the wonderful DeeAnn Redman, says story collections don’t circulate well. So I guess my thoughts still stand; that said, I should acknowledge the age of the piece that spawned them.

A friend forwarded me this New York Times piece a few days ago.

The long and short of it:

  • Editors and agents are leery of short-story collections.
  • Readers prefer the longer form of a novel.
  • Those who defend short stories don’t make a very compelling case for them.
  • Movies and TVs can do short diversions better.

This, naturally, was all welcome news to me, as short stories are all I’ve been writing for the better part of a year. The why of that is simple enough: I write what I’m compelled to write. I don’t size up markets or tailor my writing to the prevailing tastes. This isn’t some high-minded declaration of artistic freedom; it is, simply, a pragmatic accounting of what it takes to move my lazy ass from the couch to the desk.

I now have a collection pulled together and am standing by as my publisher considers it. I’m hardly an unbiased source, but I think it’s worthy. The ten stories come from a variety of points of view, engage in a number of styles, have full story arcs (this was another complaint of the article cited above, the prevalence of “meltaway slices of life that end in a wan epiphany”) and play across a robust range of human emotion. There’s an underlying theme to the collection, but I tried to keep it from being a bludgeon. The 53,000 words or so represent the best work I could do, and I’m eager to share it.

It’s a shame that the short form has fallen out of favor in some circles; some of my most-loved reading experiences came from reading Stephen King’s short stories in his heyday, and certainly from reading Hemingway’s short fiction, some of the best ever written. I read a lot of books in 2010, and not one of them resonated with me more acutely than Benjamin Percy’s wonderful Refresh, Refresh. I’m serious here: Get that book. You won’t regret it.

(Notably, Percy, in this interview with the BULLblog, says that the bulk of his attention henceforth will be paid to novels. The limited market for short fiction figures heavily into this decision.)

Oddly enough, we seem to be in a particularly florid phase for short fiction. Rare is the book that gets such universal high praise as Alan Heathcock’s Volt. Shann Ray, a Montana boy, just came out with American Masculine. Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall has won every significant prize under the sun. Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming is up for a High Plains Book Award. And so on. That’s a lot of short-story collections for a parched market.

So … what about you, kind reader? Do you like short stories? Do you read them? Why or why not?

6 Responses

  1. Jeremy Lape

    This news kind of surprises me, and causes me a bit of sadness. I like short stories and especially yours, Craig. I like the short stories of Raymond Carver, Richard Brautigan, Tobias Wolff, Brett Harte, et al. Short stories are like an ice cream cone on a warm summer night, not a full meal, but a treat, nevertheless.

    Glad you pan the experts and continue to pound out tasty treats for us. Don’t. Stop.


    July 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

  2. I love short stories and I love novels. I will always do what I can to find good examples of both to help me dive into new worlds, new situations and new ways of looking at something or someone’s experience.

    July 7, 2011 at 9:35 am

  3. Tony Press

    I’m with you. Excellent short stories, as well as excellent collections of short stories, have given me great pleasure and insight. My immersions into Alice Munro, Carlos Fuentes, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and even “lesser-knowns” such as Ann Cummins and so many more, are treasures, and I know there are more to come.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:10 am

    • Tony Press

      Yikes. I just re-read the NYT article, and it is from 2003. Which means something, I suppose.

      July 7, 2011 at 10:12 am

  4. admin

    Yikes, indeed. Among other things, it says I suck. Although if you saw my wardrobe, you’d understand that eight years out of fashion is kind of my thing.

    When I’m back at the desk, I’ll amend the post.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:19 am

  5. Tim Skaggs

    Good writing is good writing, and should be in demand, no matter the length. I actually prefer short stories over longer novels. Short stories require efficient exposition, must be story-driven, and fully expose the point of the piece. Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” episodes thrived on excellent use of short-story writing techniques. Compare TZ with the Lifetime Network’s average movie-of-the-week. Which do you prefer?

    One of the best short stories I ever read was called “Blue Eyes and Cancer”. The story revolved around a single girl on the dating scene facing an uncertain future. The title derives from her standard introductory line to potential suitors. The character also gave a nod to the short-story format: “No time to waste.”

    Short stories have another advantage. If you ultimately decide you didn’t like it, you never utter the phrase “That’s six hours of my life I will never get back”.

    July 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm