Ten Reasons to Read Short Stories
1. Because you don’t have the time. Many people say this in reply when asked about their reading. But this is a reason to read. A short story can help you make use of time that would otherwise be wasted. You can consume a flash fiction story while waiting for the elevator, read an entire William Trevor masterpiece in the time it takes the pizza to arrive at your home. I read Lee K. Abbot’s’s “Living Alone in Iota” while waiting silently for the jury to convict me of felony vandalism after I spray painted “John Updike is God” on the town’s water tower. (My defense was that it was a civic improvement). Although I was fined $1300 and had to perform community service, I still considered it a good day.
2. Because they don’t have the time. Once you decide to engage a short story, it doesn’t waste the promise of that engagement. A good short story has a first sentence that will smack you right across the intellect. The first line of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” once gave me a concussion. Then the short one-two’s of his sentences didn’t let up until I reached the end. A short story is all meat, no fat. A short story can’t waste time getting to the point, it is the point.
3. Because it’s subversive. What people won’t say in polite company they will read. I was once thrown out of a restaurant for quoting from Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. A.M. Homes is another writer that transgresses beyond our comfortable borders into territory that you won’t see on TV or at the movies.
4. Because it’s trendsetting. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” and Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” are just two of the stories that were later turned into the movies that everybody watched. Find the trends instead of following them. More and more filmmakers are moving toward the short story as the source for film. I read a story by Chuck Palahniuk in the now defunct magazine Story years before Fight Club came out and I was feeling bad about my repressed aggression and soulless mercantilism way before the rest of you.
5. Because it may be better than the novel. Even the New York Times thinks so.
6. Because it’s experimental. Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story with the "Purloined Letter." Authors like Robert Coover and Donald Bartheleme challenged form in the 20th century, and the work ethic in short fiction towards innovation has never ceased with collections like Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, and in stories like Miranda July’s 'This Person". The only innovations you’ll find on television right now are what C-List celebrity will be dancing with the stars next. Come see where real art that won’t insult your intelligence.
7. Because you want to write. You want a future in prose. You want to be the next John Cheever. Okay, maybe without the alchoholism and the sexuality issues. Except how can you be John Cheever (Or Eudora Welty) if you don’t know what territory has been already been crossed by them? Or what territory has been crossed by any writer? Reading everything may seem like an impossible proposition, but reading nothing is an even worse one. Read as much as you can so your writing can be informed by the techniques of the masters. Yes, I hear you, you want to be an individual, to write what has not been written before. You may be a secret genius, but you’re keeping secrets from yourself unless you read.
8. Because you are a Patriot. The United States has produced some of the greatest practitioners of the short story. The only other countries that may be giving us any competition are the Russians and the French. So really it’s just like watching figure skating again. Just substitute ‘Amiee Bender’s name for ‘Sasha Cohen’, and ‘story’ for ‘quadruple axle’ as in: “Go Amiee, you do that sentence. My god, that was the most awesome story I’ve ever seen in the creative part of the program.” Now that George Bush is no longer president and his planned invasion of Canada has been put on hold, we will not be adding Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro to our ranks, but we have placed Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane and Richard Ford at strategic points along the northern border. Celebrate America. Read a story.
9. Because short fiction is about you. Short stories are immediate and relevant to all of us and how we live our lives. For a while I adopted Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Lapdog’ as my guide to life. I hung out by the dog run to check out the owners of Pomeranians to see if I could find a Russian lady to have an affair that would be tragic and poignant, but then I realized I was taking things too literally. Short stories examine lives with the scope we give our own lives every day: Choice by choice by choice. Every short story revolves around a choice of a character: Love, death, friendship, grief, happiness, fear are all examined minutely. A short story gives life in heartbeats.
10. Because language is the most complex code ever invented and yet it is the one we all understand. Simply put, you will find things in stories you wouldn’t find in any other media.When William Shatner thrust his elbows into his armpits and made that face, he was trying to tell us how he felt. But I never got it. I thought he was just constipated. But a story reveals in language.The nuance of language, its ability to reveal interiors as well as exteriors in characters, to set scene wherever the author can conceive, and to dictate whatever action to the characters strike his fancy.That is the power of language, and in prose it is the short story that carries this power in it’s most distilled form. Time for a shot straight up.