A few months ago I happened to pick up a copy of a short story collection by Raymond Carver from a box of donated books. I hadn’t read Carver in years, and I know there are many stories by this master of the genre that I never read. After reading that, I moved onto another short story collection, this one by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanazaki. And with that, I have been hooked all summer long on short stories. I have since read four or five more collections, and am currently reading Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser.
It’s a question I have often asked: why are Americans, even Americans who are otherwise avid readers, not fonder of short stories? Even very popular authors can publish short story collections and they get way less attention that their novels. Why is this? It would seem that in modern society, where we are pretty addicted to short-form entertainment (the half-hour sitcom, the hour-long drama), short stories would fit right in. They are also convenient for busy people: I have a moment of leisure right now, I’ll fill it with reading a good short story.
I think some people consider short stories a lesser vehicle than the novel. But be advised, that’s not how most authors see it. Short stories take as much, if not more artistic ability and structural planning as novels. Ernest Hemingway once intimated that he had become a novelist because he failed at writing short stories. There are some authors, like the aforementioned Raymond Carver, and Canadian master Alice Munro, whose entire literary output consists of short stories. Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, based on short stories alone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, was actually a series of short stories, with the character Olive Kitteridge at their center.
In history there have been quite a few classic works of short story writing: Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and many others. Though they are all from earlier times, these stories, as with classic novels, all hold up because they are so well written and deal in universal human themes.
If it sounds like I am urging you to check out and read some short story collections, that’s exactly it–don’t wait! I am urging you, advising you, even exhorting you to look up one of the collections mentioned in these paragraphs and read it. Let me know how you enjoy it.