Don't Sell Short Stories Short

There was a period of time during my twenties where I only read short stories.  It didn’t matter if they were in an anthology, the collected work of one author, or a gathered in a literary magazine.  I couldn’t get enough of the short story form.  These days I hardly ever pick up a short story collection, but when I do, I always make a commitment to reading more.  There is something satisfying about getting a peek at a slice of  life.  When we lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, we used to walk the old neighborhoods in the early evening when the lights of the houses shone and shadows moved back and forth within.  Reading a short story is like being able to walk up those bright windows and look in for an hour or so, just enough time to get an understanding of the lives of the residents.

Most writer’s know that while publishing a short story in a literary magazine is one way to get your foot in the door, delivering a short story collection to an editor is setting yourself up for disappointment and rejection.  Although many short story collection receive critical acclaim and receive numerous awards, short fiction doesn’t sell, which is surprising. With the world around us traveling faster and faster, and communication becoming more and more brief because of email, text, and twitter, I would think the short story would be the perfect reading material of the new millenium.

Since many short story writers are not as well known as novelist, it can be more challenging to select a collection.  You have to choose blindly with little information about style, subject matter, or even genre.  One way to ease into finding quality short fiction is to come in the backdoor.  By that I mean, often, some of my favorite authors have an earlier short story collection.  A recent example of this is Aimee Bender who just came out with the popular summer novel The Sadness of Lemon Cake (which will probably hit East Side Books in the next six to eight months.  New titles take a little bit of time to circulate around to our New Books Table.)  I enjoyed Bender’s book, and when searching for her other titles discovered she had written the short story collection Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a book I’ve seen often and which received critical acclaim.  I have discovered that this is true for a number of author.  Annie Proulx, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Shipping News (which if you haven’t read, stop right now and run run run down to East Side Books and pick up a copy), has published five collections of short stories: three in a series called Wyoming Stories, and two more collections called Close Range and Heart Songs.  Jhumpa Lahiri is best know for her novel The Namesake, which was later turned into a movie, but before The Namesake, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her debut publication Interpreter of Maladies. She has recently published a new short story collection called Unaccustomed Earth.  Amy Bloom’s novel Away recently became a book club favorite (another to pluck from our shelves if you have not yet read), but among critics she was better know for her two short story collections Come to Me and National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist A Blind Man Could See How Much I Love You.

It is not only modern authors who have switched deftly from the genre of short story to novel and back again.  Some of the most powerful writers of this century have also penned a significant number of excellent short stories.  Ernest Hemingway had several volumes of wonderful short stories, many featuring the character Nick Adam.  “The Killers” is his best known story.  John Updike, one of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize more than one, published to critical acclaim a collection of his short fiction in 2003 called The Early Stories which included over 100 of his short stories from between the mid ’50s to the mid ’70s.  Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific writers working today, splits her work between short stories and novels.  Her most well known story is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”. Creepy and thought provoking, this work was expanded into a movie called Smooth Talk. Irish author William Trevor is both an excellent novelist and short story writer.  His book After Rain includes the story “The Piano Tuner’s Wife”, which is one of the finest and most beautiful short pieces of fiction I have ever read.  Last, but certainly not least, is southern writer Flannery O’Conner who in her short life, she died at the age of 39, published a number of wonderful short story collection as well as several powerful novels.

Although most short story writers are also novelist, some writers stick with the single form of short stories and become masters of their trade.  The most well known of these is O. Henry, a pseudonym for William Sydney Porter.  O. Henry began writing short stories while serving a five year term in a prison for charges of embezzlement.  While there he published 14 stories.  Once released he went on to write and publish hundreds more.  His stories are know for their wit and clever plot twists and endings, the most famous story being “The Gift of the Magi.” The O. Henry Award is a prestigious annual prize given to the most outstanding short story of the year.  Irish born Frank O’Connor is another master of the short story.  Drawing from his own life experience of Irish family life, O’Connor published over 11 original collections of short stories.  Alice Munro is a Canadian short story author who is been called “one of the greatest contemporary writers of fiction.”  Set in small town Canada, her stories focus on the human condition as seen through the window of daily life.  She is joined by a number of other female short story writers who have left their mark on the shelves including Grace Paley, Ann Beattie, Alice Adams, and Bobbie Ann Mason.  Perhaps the reason you even see short story collections on the bookstore shelves is because of Raymond Carver, who single handedly revitalized the short story form in the 1980’s with the publication of his collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Where I’m Calling From, Cathedral, and Elephant.  His story “A Small, Good Thing” is a powerful and beautiful story about grief, forgiveness, and kindness.  Unfortunately, Carver struggled with monetary and martial issues as well as alcohol abuse for most of this life, and died at the age of 50.

Some people say the reason they don’t like short stories is because just as they are getting into it, the story ends.  For these readers, they might want to try “interconnected short story collections.”  An excellent example of this is the recent Pulitzer Prize winning book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a slim book of thirteen linked stories that cover a thirty year period of an unforgettable woman’s life.  Another recent interconnected short story collection is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, 22 powerful stories about modern life on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  (You have to love Alexie’s long titles. Don’t miss his powerful young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.)   Past popular interconnect short story collections are The Things They Carry by Tim O’Brien about his experience in Vietnam, and Melissa Banks’ A Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which made me laugh aloud several times.  The classic of interconnected short story collections is John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, four related stories about the coming-of-age events in a young boy’s life as he grows up on a Salinas ranch.  The title story, The Red Pony, is Steinbeck’s most well known short story, powerful and gut wrenching, it often incites mixed reactions from readers.

If you have been automatically picking up novel after novel, we encourage you to branch out and try a short story collection.  If you need any assistance finding any of the above mentioned titles, please ask our staff for assistance.  As always, if we don’t have what you are looking for we are happy to add your title to our Wants List or to place a special order.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *