Keep It Short

Why is it that short stories, and short story collections, are not as popular as novels, memoirs, creative nonfiction, or just about any other writing form?

This may be an odd first topic for a debut short story writer to address in his first blog post. But it’s something I’ve given a great deal of thought. I mean, even before the advent of Twitter, this was short attention span nation, right? Wouldn’t people flock to a form that can be read, start to finish, at one sitting? On a bus, or a subway, or waiting in an airport security line?

I should confess off the top that my evidence for the unpopularity of short stories is anecdotal. Publishers have told me that selling just a few thousand copies of a short story collection would by most standards be considered excellent. Every literary agent I’ve ever met has told me that short story collections don’t sell. It’s great that you’re writing stories, they say, over and over, but have you written a novel?

I’ll address how I came to write short stories in another post. For now, I’ll just say that after awhile, this line of inquiry gets exasperating. So much so that in one meeting, when the umpteenth agent asked if I was working on a novel, I said yes, as a matter of fact I was – and promptly made one up, on the spot.

“Tell me about it.” She’d said.

“Well, it, um, it’s …” – and then I’d remembered something I had come across while researching “Mainlanders,” one of the stories in “Pulp and Paper” – “it’s about life saving stations.”

The agent perked up: “Life saving stations?”

“Um, well, U.S. life saving stations, yes,” I said, somewhat emboldened. “They were funded by Congress in the late 1800s – a precursor to the Coast Guard. They set up these red houses along the Atlantic Coast with house-paid crews. And they, uh, saved people. In shipwrecks. The crewmen would stand in their towers in a storm and, when they spotted the flares of a foundering ship, they’d head out into the surf.” I glanced down at my lap, fearful she could see right through me. “It’s a love affair, really.”

“That sounds wonderful!” she said. “How much have you have written!”

Forget that by that point, I’d been toiling away on my short story collection for 6 years. Sixty seconds into my spontaneous novel pitch, she seemed ready to sign me on the spot.

Here is a true story: my mother-in-law once said to me, after my latest short story had come out: Have you ever considered writing a novel?

A great short story is like a great novel. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Characters face some significant ordeal or challenge; they are tried and changed by it. When you read the last words of a great short story, there is a satisfying click – an aha moment of self-understanding. Perhaps despite ourselves, we have been moved.

It can happen in one page, as well as a thousand. If you don’t believe it, read Brady Udall’s “The Wig.”

“In the afterglow of a good short story, consciousness is heightened,” writes Katerina Kenison in the forward to “The Best American Short Stories 1991.” “We see more clearly, gain fresh perspective, seek to live more thoughtfully and independently.”

The very best short stories – like the best novels, memoirs, and poems – remind us we are alive.

And they do it before you even reach the front of that airport security line.

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