Why Short Stories Matter

By October 25, 2015Rant

“A collection of short stories?” said the very famous writer I met at the Whistler Writer’s Festival last weekend when I told him about my book The Little Washer of Sorrows. “Good luck! The market for short stories is brutal. Only thing worse is a collection of poetry.” (I’d just purchased Prologue for the Age of Consequence, a book of poetry by Garth Martens about the oil sands in Northern Alberta and the workers there.)
“Unless you’re Alice Munro, that is.”
Now I have nothing against Alice Munro, but blue is not the only color and she is not the only successful Canadian short story author. However, his comments made me think. I happen to love the short fiction form. Not exclusively, mind you. I tend to have three books on the go at all times:  a novel (currently: If I Fall, If I Die, by Michael Christie,) a collection of short stories (Juliet Was a Surprise by Bill Gaston) and something non-fiction (bouncing back and forth between What Would Keith Richards Do by Jessica Pallington West and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks). And then, of course, there are magazines. Oh, the magazines! Canada’s superb literary magazines—The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, Prism, subTerrain, etc— ooze with brilliance. Not to mention my two American faves: The New Yorker and Harpers, which both feature short fiction (and wicked cartoons) in each issue.
Why short stories? Are they not not simply snacks before the main course? An entry point, before the author finally graduates to novels–real books? Are writers of short fiction basically wannabe novelists with ADD?
Short story experts like Zsuzsi Gartner, George Saunders, Shaena Lambert, Etgar Keret, Jim Shepard, Pasha Malla and Matthew Trafford are gems in the genre. And some of the biggies: Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaimon and Stephen King are novelists who moonlight as short story masters. I enjoyed Atwood’s laser-point emotional accuracy in the stories of Stone Mattress even more than her recent long-form trilogy. Whether itsy-bitsy tales like the ones in John Gould’s Kilter and Nick Parker’s The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales or the longer stories of Lori Moore’s Birds of America and Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway, short stories can be both fun and serious, pointed and ridiculous. They are the roller coaster rides—not the road trips; the fire-works—not the slow burn.
Perhaps because short stories require less of a commitment from the reader (one sitting! you start it at lunch, you’ll be done by afternoon naptime!) writers can afford to be more experimental, more quirky. In an interview with 49th Shelf, an on-line platform for Canadian books, Megan Coles, author of the collection Eating Habits of the Chronically  Lonesome said “The short story takes off its pants and boards a plane. Just to see what will happen.” Kevin Hardcastle, author of the soon-to-be-release Debris reinforced Cole’s sentiments. “I think the distillation of elements in a short story, the intensity of the form, is what makes it definitive…the economy and precision of language that is required and the great degree of difficulty, consistently turns out the best prose and the finest sentences.”
The short story is an intense, passionate love affair. Every word counts, every sentence must be perfect and purposeful. It is a narrative that won’t last—the author damn well better make each fleeting moment count. The short story chops the small talk, the rambling introductions, the long-drawn out goodbyes. It’s all meat. All heart. A great short story will take your breath away like a punch in the stomach.
So which is more valid (and more marketable)—the novel or the short story? One is a sprint, the other a marathon. One is a marriage, the other a stranger’s kiss at a costume ball, the other. I’m all for the good solid commitment, but now and then isn’t it fun to dash naked around the block?
I hope there is room for a diverse library in our country. I hope the very famous writer was wrong, and there IS a market for short stories. I hope readers who tend towards the same type of book time after time step out of the box and try a short story collection, the green eggs and ham of the literary world.