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Why You Aren’t Reading Short Stories, and Why You Should
(and how to!)
A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Twitter that I dared people to read one short story collection. Given that most of my followers are readers (or Zillow fanatics?) this shouldn’t be a big ask. But we know that it is. Industry wisdom is that for an author who puts out both novels and story collections, a collection will sell about a tenth as well as a novel (if that). Some people responded by recommending their favorite titles, but many others basically said “Yeah, I don’t know why I don’t read those.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting at a signing table with all of my books when someone touches my story collection and says “Oh, what’s this one?” and I say “That’s a short story collection” and they recoil as if they just touched a dead squirrel.
Some collections don’t even have the word “stories” on the cover, for fear it will scare away readers.
I’m going to tell you why you should be reading more short stories.* But first, I’m going to tell you why you’re not reading them. (Or why the world in general is not reading them, because perhaps you personally read them all the time.)
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I have five theories:
1) Collections of any kind are hard to talk about. It’s one thing to say, “You have to read this novel; it’s about a woman whose wedding is ruined by killer bees!” and another to say, “You have to read this story collection! It’s about twelve different things, and all the stories are very well written.” Without a hook, we’re less intrigued, it doesn’t stick in our memories, and even if we buy or borrow it, a month later when we’re looking through the bedside stack, we’re less likely to remember why we wanted to read it.
This problem goes beyond your book-recommending friends: Everyone up the publishing food chain has a harder time talking about the book and getting people hooked on a plot before they’ve read a word. Agents have a harder time intriguing editors; editors have a harder time intriguing publishers (their bosses) or the marketing and publicity teams; sales teams have a harder time hooking booksellers; booksellers have a harder time remembering what the book is about and conveying that to readers.
They’re also harder to review, for this reason, and harder for, say, an NPR host to interview the author about. It’s harder for a festival organizer to put a story writer on a themed panel. And on and on.
Of course all this is mitigated when there’s some overt connection between the stories. Lauren Groff’s Florida, for instance, telegraphs its theme immediately: a bunch of stories about Florida! Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations contains 100 very short stories about ghosts. But many collections are centered on subtler themes, if any. My one collection, Music for Wartime, was loosely about the question of what it means to make art and beauty in the midst of a brutal and chaotic world. But who on earth is going to remember that? (This is not me telling you to buy my collection, btw. I’m never going to earn royalties on it. Buy someone else’s.)
2) You might have had a bad short story experience in school. Short stories are great for the classroom, and so much fun to pick apart, and I love teaching them to grad students. But if Mrs. Gladacker made you spend two weeks on some dry-ass story from 1890, and made you feel like you were missing some literary decoder ring, and implied that stories exist only to pack in dozens of arcane literary devices that you’re supposed to recognize, or else you’ll get a D, then I can see why you wouldn’t be running out to read more of them.
3) As an adult, you might have encountered stories that just aren’t your style. You might subscribe to one of the magazines that publishes a short story in each issue, and that editor’s taste might not align with your own. Or you might have tried to make yourself read something because it was Important and wound up frustrated or bored.
4) Story collections rarely win major book prizes—perhaps because juries are tempted to reward a singular, monumental achievement. And maybe because when you read a collection, you’re tempted to rank the stories from strongest to weakest, which makes even the strongest collections feel “uneven” in the final judging.
5) It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we bought more story collections, then they’d be reviewed more and featured more prominently in reviews and bookstores. Maybe Oprah and Reese and Jenna would pick story collections. Story collections would earn bigger advances, which would mean established writers would feel they were worthwhile, which in turn would boost the profile of story collections in general, etc. etc. There are countries where this is true (Japan!) and ones where they read even fewer short stories than we do (much of Europe). Let’s be like Japan.
Why you should be reading short stories:
1) Stories are where many writers explore the outer edges of their craft. There are stylistic moves you can make in short fiction that you wouldn’t want to, or simply couldn’t, maintain for 300 pages. I have a story in my collection that’s written as a series of interrogation answers (minus the questions) with parts redacted. It went on just about as long as it could, which was something like five pages.
2) The same thing goes for topic. Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is perfect as a short story; how on earth would it work as a novel? I have a short story in which a woman coughs up a tiny Johan Sebastian Bach, who then grows to human size, and then they have an affair. I guess in another life I could have made that into a novel, but I would have had to answer a lot of questions that a short story could kind of skate blithely over.
3) Individual stories are a great way to discover new authors. That’s great for you (look, a new author!) plus it’s good bragging rights at your book club (you’ve been reading that person since before they even had a book out!) plus it’s great for the authors; maybe you’ll be one of the few people to support this author you’ve been following for years when their debut, a story collection from a small press, appears.
4) When you find one you love, it’s like putting one drop of distilled brilliance on your tongue. You can reread it in a single sitting and discover what you didn’t notice the first time. You can carry that story in your mind, whole—something that’s harder to do with a 300-page novel. (Think of the picture books you loved as a child. Think of the fairytales or family stories you grew up on. Those are short stories. They have stayed with you.)
5) The effect of an entire, well-curated collection can be enormous, and a linked collection can read like a novel. If you happened to love the “novels” A Visit from the Goon Squad or Olive Kitteridge, you… might like story collections.
How you (yes, you!) can read more short stories:
1) You can start with anthologies and seek out the writers you want to hear more from. The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, the O. Henry Prize Winners, the Pushcart Prize anthology are all good anthologies to start with; those are anthologies that pull from stories published in journals or magazines, selecting according to the editor’s and/or guest editor’s taste. Other anthologies are themed, with pieces often directly solicited for the book—anthologies like Open Heart Chicago or Anonymous Sex. (I had a story in that last one, and I’m contractually not allowed to tell you which one.) You can have fun putting stars on your favorite ones or even (like Nabokov) grading them.
2) You can subscribe to a literary magazine like The Paris Review or American Short Fiction, or Callaloo, or (if you like weirder stuff) Conjunctions. Or you can follow ones like Shenandoah or Electric Literature online. (The print journals usually have work up online as well.) You might find a journal that’s local to you. Subscribing to one of these does wonders to support the literary ecosystem and new or emerging writers.
3) You can listen to the Selected Shorts podcast, and hear brilliant actors read stories on stage to a live audience—something that for some reason holds my attention better than an audiobook. Meg Wolitzer currently curates it, and she has impeccable taste. Over the years, I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors and stories from the series. A couple of favorites: “Where the Cluetts Are” by Jack Finney and “The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett. I’ve had two stories performed, and loved the delivery on both of them; one is still online.
4) You can start a short story book club. I know of book clubs that just read their way through Best American, one story per meeting. It’s kind of brilliant—you can get into a deep discussion, and it’s much easier for everyone to stay on top of the reading.
5) You can (forgive me!) keep a story collection in the bathroom. I also recommend doing this with poetry, which we should also all be reading more of. Or you can keep a collection or anthology in your car or your purse. Or you can have short stories cued up on your phone. In other words: Since they’re short, fit them into the parts of your life when you might have a few minutes, when you might be bored. The times you might be tempted to play sudoku on your phone.
6) Identify your taste and pursue it. Don’t settle for being a passive consumer of stories, relying on the taste of the fiction editor of the one glossy magazine you subscribe to. If you discover you love weird, experimental stories, go in that direction! If you love mysteries, do that. If you love sci-fi, you’re probably already a big short story reader (yay, you!). If you love sports, read sports stories. If you’re traveling to a certain place, try to find short stories set there. If you hate short stories that don’t have much of a plot, find the writers who write stories with plots! (Start with “The Proxy Marriage,” by Maile Meloy.)
A handful of my favorite story collections:
A handful of my all-time favorite short stories:
“Corrie” by Alice Munro. (Note that the version in her collection Dear Life has a slightly different ending.)
“Virgins” by Danielle Evans (behind the Paris Review paywall)
“The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris
“Going for a Beer” by Robert Coover
“Diem Perdidi” by Julie Otsuka (behind the Granta paywall)
“The Liberator” by Tania James (not online, but you can order the issue of Freeman’s it was in; it’s worth it)
I’m using great restraint to stop right there.
The aforementioned Kevin Brockmeier, a consummate listmaker, has a great list here.
Anyway, that was my manifesto. If you’re a paid subscriber, please carry on the discussion in the comments! I’d love for you to share your own favorites.
*Some distinctions I’ve realized I need to make: A story collection is a book of stories by the same author. An anthology is a curated collection in which each story is from a different author. The “selected stories” of a given author will likely be stories chosen from throughout their career, maybe a couple from each of several previous collections. “New and selected stories” would be that plus a few new pieces. “Collected stories” often happen after an important author’s death, with all (or just about all) of their stories appearing together in one volume, sometimes even including juvenilia.