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These pandemic days feel both interminable and brief all at once. Time both drags and flies by. And even us rabid readers find our towering TBRs just keep growing taller. Anxiety and ennui make it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, making it tough to hold a long story in the imagination.

Short story to the rescue.

I mean, who wants to read one more doomsday article or essay. (OK, I read those, too.) But fiction in pandemic times? Yes, please! Anything to distract from the world on fire. But short fiction? As you might imagine, the novel beats out the short story collection in sales, everywhere. Sure, there are popular short story collections. But, as this Guardian article notes: “Most don’t sell many copies (a debut collection from one of the major publishing houses might have a print run of 3,000, with little expectation of a reprint).” Even when sales of short story collections surge, as they did in 2018, they’ll never beat out the novel.

But right about now might be a good time to revisit the short form. For escape, sure, and for craft–for those of us who write fiction–and also, and maybe most importantly right now, for connection with other readers. One of the most delightful virtual connections I’ve made in these pandemic days is with a book club (hosted by jesuit.org if you’re interested) that meets over at FB. The last book we read was, you guessed it, a short story collection, Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade, which I highly recommend.

At the moment, I’m reading short stories before bed (“they” say escapism is better for relaxation than, say, a nonfiction book about the plague). I’m still working through short stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, which are often just a handful of pages long. They “escape” me to far-away Finland with its woods and lakes, its terrain of moss and lichens that feels foreign and inviting and cool. I save novels for daytime reading: right now that’s Jansson’s Fair Play; and Pete Beatty’s debut novel Cuyahoga, which is a Rust Belt novel if I’ve ever met one, and I plan to discuss it here.

Of course, many short stories birth novels. Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” inspired her to build on that world for her debut novel, The Five Wounds, which will launch in 2021.

Then there are the movies that have grown out of short stories: famously, Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s novella (OK, not quite as brief as a short story but he’s adapted a lot of those, too): “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” A little more recently, there was Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” And, then there was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which inspired a movie that released 86 years later–testament to the lasting power of the short story (or, at least, short stories by masters, like Fitzgerald).

I love a good short story. I love their self-contained quietude. I love the kind of short story where nothing really happens, except an all-important shift in perception or understanding. We readers don’t always need the classical story arc in short fiction (that many of us seem to desire in a novel: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). A short story can capture a moment, a day, a year, or many years–and the plot doesn’t need to be tied up with a bow.

Take Raymond Carver’s famous story “Cathedral,” probably the story that cemented in college my love for American fiction and my desire to write it. It’s often-anthologized, often found within the same big American Lit 101 tomes as the classic stories by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, O’Connor and Kate Chopin, and more modern short story masters of the world, like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Hempel. (And it’s totally not how I write, but aspire to.) Let me know what you think of it, if you read it!

Do you read short stories? Write them? What’s your favorite? Need a suggestion for some pandemic escapist short story reading?

Last year, Lit Hub recommended “The 10 Best Short Story Collections of the Decade” and the year before that Esquire recommended some “great literature in small portions” with “15 Short Story Collections Everyone Should Read.”

Thank you to Lorna of Gin & Lemonade, for putting me in a short story frame of mind–and for inspiring this post. Blogging groups are invaluable, for sure.

Happy reading and writing, all–whether short, long, or in between! Want to read a short story of mine? I’ve linked to a few over at my About page.

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices with connections to the American Rust Belt. Let’s connect!

25 thoughts on “In Praise of the Short Story

  1. I love short stories and often vow to take a stab at writing them myself, but I personally find novel-writing to be much easier. Maybe I’m just too long-winded for my own good? In any case, this post kind of inspires me to take another crack at them.

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    1. I’m impressed. I wish I found novel-writing easier–and this is coming from a pretty long-winded person here! Is plot your forte? Maybe that’s my problem–I’m probably better at characterization than plot, though I love the challenge of a sustained story. With the novel I’m currently writing, I’ve tried to have some of the chapters work as stories, to be more self contained. That way I can psych myself into thinking I’m just writing a few stories, and not a book. Keep writing is the only advice I can give, these weird days, but I do think the short story form has fun lessons to offer.

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  2. For a time I was attempting short stories, but I don’t think I’m good at them even though I did enjoy writing them. I’m reading (on the side) a collection of short essays (Calypso) by David Sedaris, but not anything on the bubonic plague before bedtime 😉 – yet.

    My favorite short is Stickeen: A story of a Dog by the great John Muir. And I bookmarked the list of good shorts that Gin & Lemonade recommended. I’ll have to remember to read Cathedral, too! No shortage of things to read, eh? xo

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    1. David Sedaris is so fun. I remember his NAKED as really impressing me! I don’t know Stickeen, but have bookmarked that–yes, so much to read (and listen to). (Want to get to the Ann Hood you recommended soon.) Off to my writing morning. Hope yours is going well! Thanks for stopping by here…xoxo

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  3. I’ve always been a fan of the short story. Used to find them published in some of the magazines I inscribed to. Now I read essay collections more often. Currently, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore. But my Covid book-buying binge did include one book of short stories – haven’t gotten to it, but when I look at the big novel I just added to the end table TBR stack, I may just reconsider!

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    1. I’ve read more essay collections in recent years, too. That collection you’re reading sounds interesting. I think you might like the essay collection I’m listening to right now, Helen Macdonald’s VESPER FLIGHTS. With her background as a naturalist, her writing is so fascinating. I’m surprised I’m not dreaming of birds! “Doorstoppers,” they call the giant novels, right? Yeah, short stories seem to fit my shorter attention span at the moment. Have a great reading and writing week, Eilene!

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      1. Just finished reading “Cathedral.” I’ll have to think a bit on it, but it’s an interesting take on encountering something that makes us uncomfortable and realizing that maybe it isn’t quite as foreign as we suppose.

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      2. I should have prefaced this choice story of mine by saying I love an unreliable narrator (especially of the crotchety variety, apparently) for the ambiguity and openness of meaning–and for the redemption they can gain by the end of the story (even if in small measure). Have a good rest of your week!

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    1. You’re welcome! And I love your blog and writing, but I’m trying to stay in my American Rust Belt lane, with respect to guest posts. It’s probably silly and limiting, but there it is. That probably makes me a bad blogger, but it’s been fantastic to find and explore your blog!

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  4. I just got sucked into Cathedral. I kept it on my tabs to finish later, since it’s the middle of the workday! In fact, I’m saving this beautiful post of yours so I can read the other short stories you mentioned. Thank you a million! Ray Bradbury said we should write a short story every week for a year before attempting a novel. Said they all can’t be bad. Haha! Well, I’d already attempted two novels and was on the third when I got his advice, so too late for me. But, I decided to spend some more time writing shorts in between my novels, and reading them helps me write them. As a kid I hated short stories. I wanted something I could invest in, you know? For a looooong time. I wanted my escape to keep me in its grip for longer than I thought a short story could, so I never picked them up. Which may be why writing them was so dang hard. Thanks for making me think, as always, Rebecca. I come away from your posts richer. 🙂

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    1. You’re so sweet, Kelly! And I do hope you like Cathedral. The spare way it starts is like nothing I ever write, which is why I admire it so much, I guess. I’m all scene-setting and character development, showing, etc., etc. I had little patience for short stories as a younger person–right, it’s so great to get sucked into a novel! Have you ever had any of your book chapters work as short stories? Maybe just the first chapter? Like a two-fer. Thanks for being here, friend! Now go write!

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  5. Just revisited Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.” Amazingly relevant considering the stories are 60-70 years old at this point.
    As a science fiction writer, Bradbury was constantly asked, “Where do you get your crazy ideas?”
    His answer … “Every night before I go to bed, I set out a beer and some cookies on the back porch. In the morning the beer and cookies are gone and in their place is a stack of crazy ideas!”

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    1. Another short story I need to read–thank you, Poppy! I love Bradbury’s answer, and I would happily set out a six pack and a dozen cookies each night for some crazy ideas! What I come up with is generally a bit more tame, but I might just have to start some Bradbury imitations for exercise. Hope you’re well–thanks so much for stopping by!

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  6. I’m drawn to classic sci-fi short stories, am reading them at the moment. I think short stories are perfect for when you only have a little time to read or need a few minutes’ distraction. Have you noticed how many new books with a pandemic theme there are? They don’t appeal to me, I really don’t want to read something that’s close to real life at the moment…

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    1. Yes, I’m all for escapist reading right now–totally with you there! One reason I love historical fiction. I have zero desire to read pandemic fiction, though I did read and enjoy the apocalyptic novel FIND ME by Lauren van den Berg, which was written long before this pandemic but felt eerily prescient. Right now, though, I’m definitely in a reading jag that’s taking me far from 2020! Thank you for your take–and feel free to share your fave short story, if you have one.

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  7. I wrote short stories for fifty years because what little time I had for writing precluded the possibility of retaining the energy for a novel, which requires a consistent, energetic commitment. I love the short story forms and particularly enjoyed the acceptability of flash fiction in literary magazines, but now that I’m writing novels full time, I’ll never go back and regret I wasn’t able to start sooner.

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    1. “Consistent, energetic commitment” is just what I’m trying to muster at the moment! You’re certainly right that the forms require a different kind of energy. I regret I didn’t become more of a student of the short story before being lured away by the novel–and I think I’m too long-winded for flash, so I don’t write much of that. Though I’m always impressed by those who can squeeze a full-fledged story into 1K words. I’m two-thirds into the first draft of a novel, so I don’t dare venture into new short stories now–but after I have the draft out I will. I enjoy the challenge of trying to fashion a short story from a novel excerpt. Do you do that? Looking forward to checking out your site and writing. Thank you for stopping by and for your comment!

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      1. I have indeed taken short stories from the text of a novel in the past, but I doubt I will do that now. I really have no more time to submit short stories any more and have only published short pieces in the last year or so on request. I have more than a few short stories that have never seen the light of day. It’s all about the novels now.

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