March 31st 2009 Brief Thoughts On the Short Story

I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately: mostly short stories by Haruki Murakami (first The Elephant Vanishes, and now Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), but also some short plays by Tennessee Williams. I’ve also been reading a bit of Vonnegut (in particular, Hocus Pocus); these aren’t short stories per se, but Vonnegut’s post-modern style often makes a narrative feel like a snapshots. I’ve found short stories to be more palatable as of late because I read quite slowly, and I lose focus on what I’m reading a lot; with short stories, I don’t have to keep long plot lines and lots of characters in my head. I can finish an entire story in a single sitting. I also wrote a fair amount of short stories in my youth, which might explain my affinity for the craft.

Because of my own history of short story writing, I’ve developed an intense appreciation for short fiction. Short stories are akin to poems: a feeling must be conveyed succinctly, without the benefit of lengthy exposition. Symbols and imagery are paramount. Writing novels is certainly hard work that requires a lot of careful planning and time, but novelists have luxuries that short story writers don’t. In a short story, the writer doesn’t have time to create complex plots, or develop rich character backgrounds to explain motivations. Short story writers have to grasp a concept’s core idea and use rich symbolism to get the idea across; they also have to illustrate characters through just a few key actions and behaviors. Novels are to movies as short stories are to photographs: a short story captures a single moment in time.

Good short stories are hard to find; it’s almost impossible to publish short stories in today’s environment of mass market media. Novels are easier to package and market. The only people who can publish short stories are established writers—and even then, publishers often dig up earlier works and bind them together as an anthology. In previous decades, a lot of writers got their start publishing short stories in less-than-savory magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Apparently, once upon a time, porn magazines were read for the articles. Do porn magazines even publish short stories anymore?

But while I adore short stories, lately I’ve been thinking about cracking open a good novel. I happened to run into a librarian at my usual reading spot a few days ago. The fact that a young woman was in my reading spot, smoking the same brand of cigarettes (Djarum Blacks), seemed like too much of a coincidence, so I struck up a conversation with her. When I lamented the absence of decent short stories in bookstores, she pointed out that she preferred novels not because of a lack of marketing, but because novels pull you into the story and provide a form of long-term escapism in a way that short stories don’t.

Later, as I explored the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble, I realized that I did miss that feeling of being completely absorbed in a story. Short stories are a delicious fare, but having read mostly short fiction for the past couple of months, I’d like to read something into which I can completely escape for a while. The next thing I plan to read is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Dance Dance Dance.