May is the traditional month for college graduations, high school proms, renewing your garden or flower beds, but it’s also the “national” month for several issues: Speech and Hearing, Lupus, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Skin Cancer, Asian Pacific Heritage, and many, many more. People involved with or affected by these issues use the month of May to increase awareness of the topic and raise money.
May is also National Short Story Month. Now, I’m not trying to equate short story awareness with, say ALS awareness, but a literate society is one that strives to conquer disease and acknowledge diversity. An appreciation of the short story, whether as a reader or writer of them, is an essential part of being literate, of having an education.
Many writers–especially those of us who count short stories among our skills–look upon short stories as rather the red-headed step-child of literature. That isn’t altogether inaccurate. The big-name, traditional publishers won’t touch a collection of short stories unless you’re an equally big-name writer. In the past decade or so, some writers have come up with unique ways of “disguising” short story collections–linked stories (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennie Coughlin’s Thrown Out, and my own Blood Vengeance) or a novel in stories (Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You, Clifford Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know, and, to a certain extent, my book, Spy Flash.)
Those alternative approaches have had some success in getting the short story before the reading public. Small presses, like Press 53 in North Carolina, are more amenable to the publication of short stories, as are university presses, but short stories are almost a niche market.
In the past, short stories (which some believe have their origins in The Canterbury Tales, perhaps the first collection of linked short stories) were the venerated form of fiction, and in the short story’s glory days, hundred of literary and mainstream magazines featured short works. The novel was considered crass pulp fiction, and the short story was considered an art. Such noted writers as Kurt Vonnegut struggled to get his short stories published and often considered himself a failure for it, even as his novels assured his success and literary acceptance. As the novel reached its ascendence in the twentieth century, short stories survived in but a few literary magazines and the venerated New Yorker. Genre short stories–horror, science fiction, thrillers, crime–continued to flourish in limited markets. There are some, usually genre fans, of which I’m one, who believe it was genre short stories that saved the short story as a literary niche.
Interestingly enough, short stories have enjoyed a revival of sorts with the advent of the ebook reader. When you’re looking for something to read on your work commute, a short story is ideal. A short story is something you can begin and finish easily in a single sitting. When I used to commute to work, I’d often be frustrated that I’d reach just the most critical point in a novel when my stop came up. And, yes, there were occasions where I missed my stop because of that. Short stories are ideal for the eReader, either as collections or as singles.
What is the attraction of short stories? Why do those of us who call ourselves novelists indulge in the production of shorter work? Well, sometimes you don’t need 50,000-plus words to tell a story. Sometimes you can do it in 5,000, 3,000, or, with the advent of flash fiction, in less than 1,000 words. Some of us can manage a story in 100 words, and Hemingway once told a rich, poignant story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Though I consider myself a novelist, my only published work has been short stories, either in literary magazines or in my own collections. I write two to three short stories a week, usually flash fiction mainly as an exercise for my longer fiction. Face it, when you have to hone and cut words to meet an arbitrary word limit and still tell a complete story, that’s absolutely translatable to a novel-length work. In my year-long edit of a series of four books I’ve been working on, I managed to trim well over 100 pages, which didn’t need to be there in the first place. Had I not been practicing my short story skills under those word limits, I’m convinced that wouldn’t have happened, to the detriment of the work.
So, help out a short story writer in May. Buy a single, or, better yet, buy a collection of short stories and savor them. I happen to have three such collections available. Just scroll down the righthand column. A click on the book’s cover will take you to where you can purchase them. Don’t think of it as enriching me (because, really, it doesn’t pay me that much). Think of it as assuring the continuation of an essential form of fiction–the short story.
For an interesting article on the history of the short story, click here.