Why The Short Story?

Like so many writers, I loved to read when I was a child. I remember SRA books—do you remember those? You’d have to be of a certain age, and maybe of a certain region of the world. Anyway, SRA was a reading comprehension program for grade schoolers where you could read at your own pace, answer questions on a little quiz, and move onto the next book, the next level, and so on. They were stories, really, not books. Small pamphlets of one short story each. There were at least two educational premises going at once here with this program: 1.) independent learning; and 2.) speed reading for comprehension. Now I have to say that while I loved these little stories (I wish I could remember some of them, but we are talking decades ago and probably not the highest caliber of literature) I was not very good at advancing up through the ranks of readership. (Colors, there were colors. The pamphlets bore a certain band of color on their edges as did their question cards. A new rank, a new color. Like karate belts. Like national safety travel advisories at the airport. Only the colors on the SRA stories were not boring old white, black, brown, orange and red, but lovely, as I recall, fuchsia and teal and turquoise—is this true or just the fondness of the memory?—colors that little kids in the 60s would be attracted to, would strive for.) Still, it would take me a long time to move from fuchsia to teal, not because I wasn’t a good or avid reader, but because I was a slow reader. A careful reader. A savor-er. (Here I will insert that even today, in my fifth decade, I eat my ice cream with a tiny spoon, a kid’s-sized utensil. I want to enjoy every little bite.) I make no apologies for being a slow reader. Just last night while I was reading about the work of an orderly and a doctor (Enos) in the title story of Melanie Rae Thon’s collection First, Body, I found myself reading over and over again these sentences: “These exchanges became the sacrament, transubstantiated in the bodies of startled men and weary children. Sometimes the innocent died and the faithless lived. Sometimes the blind began to see. Enos said, ‘We save bodies, not souls.’” I read them with my lips moving, something they tried to teach us—as we plowed through our SRA stories—would slow our reading down. As though reading faster was reading better.

I was also a student of the phonics. We’ve all seen these commercials in which the little kids are reading something very difficult from an encyclopedia, with words like transubstantiated and sacrament, and while they pronounce everything very well, it is clear that they have absolutely no understanding of what they are saying. Perhaps because my teachers gave us things to read that made sense to us, stories we could relate to and understand, learning how to read a word out loud by using sounds was instrumental in my educational process. I can still remember reading the word “perhaps” for the first time. “Per,” I sounded out, and then “haps.” It might have been one of the first two-syllable words that I could read on the page; I was very young, and I was so excited by the feat. It became my favorite word for a while. One that I had heard and used often before this, but it found a way just about everything I said. My standard answer to most questions.

“Want to come over and play after school?”

“Perhaps.”

“Can I have a bite of your sandwich?”

“Perhaps.”

“Did you finish your homework?”

“Perhaps.”

“Will you have your parents sign your report card?”

“Perhaps.”

Mostly, though, what brought me to reading—and later, writing—was STORY. I loved stories. I loved reading them, telling them, hearing them, writing them. My father, Wilbur McNair (1919-1974,) was great at telling stories. Tall tales. Tales of bullfighting and solo flying and conferring with presidents and kings. (He did none of these things. I knew that, and yet, I was enchanted by his tales. What little girl wouldn’t be?) Sometimes I’d tell him stories, too, often drawn from the ones I’d read myself, taking on the leading role, the part of the main character.

In my early adulthood, though, reading became less important to me. Why was that? Too many late nights at the clubs, too many hangovers, too many friends who didn’t read at all, maybe. Dancing. Now that was important. Flirtation. But then, in the early 1980s, I found this little book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I know you know it. Raymond Carver. And regardless what you think about Carver or that literary generation’s minimalism or Gordon Lish or any of these things, I am not afraid to admit that these stories opened up a world to me. They were manageable (some no longer than those tiny stories in my SRA books long ago) and moving. They were brutal and they were fearless. I didn’t know that stories could do that. I didn’t know you could tell these things, say them out loud. And since they were so short, they helped me build my reading muscles up again. Like running a mile on your way to a marathon. I’d enrolled in my first writing class at Columbia College Chicago and was assigned Black Boy by Richard Wright, and this, too, drew me back into the magical world of the printed page.

But the short story, yes the short story. “Palm Wine,” by Reginald McKnight. “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, “Araby,” by James Joyce. “The Lesson,” by Toni Cade Bambara. “Rape,” by Gerard Woodward. “Morgan,” by John Schultz. “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. “The Vomitorium,” by John McNally. “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek. “A Temporary Matter,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. “A&P,” by John Updike. “Diamond Alley,” by Dennis McFadden. “Letters from Kilburn,” by Vanessa Gebbie. “How To Marry a Wasp,” by Gina Frangello. I have far too many favorites to name them all. Is there anything better than reading these? Why do publishers, agents, editors say we can’t sell short story collections? How wonderful they are, moments of life and imagination gathered together in a few pages. They can be like the three-minute pop song that gets it just right in three verses and a chorus. They can be bigger than that, a series of narrative lines that curve and braid and lead the reader to connections she considers for the first time. They have the capacity for grace and for resonance. They can be consumed on-line at the bank (does anyone stand in line at the bank anymore?) or on the subway ride to work or after you’ve turned off the television but before you turn off the light. Nowadays they can live on your cell phone (that’s your mobile, my British friends, check out www.cellstories.net) and in the pages of clothing catalogues and are spoken over the radio.

I love the short story. I love writing them. I love reading them. And I know that I am not alone.

Over the next few weeks, I will be engaged in a virtual conversation with four award-winning short story writers, Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies,) Vanessa Gebbie (Storm Warning,) Dennis McFadden (Hart’s Grove) about various writerly, readerly and other things. We will pose questions to one another, and as I gather the answers, I will post them on my blog. Feel free to join in the conversation yourself, if you would like. Comments are always welcome.

My first question, then, is inspired by my ramblings above: Why the short story?

3 Replies to “Why The Short Story?”

  1. Very interesting post, Patty. There seems to be something of a revival of the short story going on in the UK at the moment, a couple of competitions have given it unprecedented national prominence, and some publishers and newspapers are doing their best to promote it – we’ll see if it has any affect on the reading public. Meanwhile there is a general resistance to it among readers and publishers, which goes contrary to what one would expect in an age of short attention spans, but it seems that readers go to fiction for long, immersive reading experiences, they like to be lost in a narrative for days and weeks, and don’t like the stop-start experience of reading a short story collection. I really don’t know why that is, but it is what I have picked up from talking to people, and am often surprised when people, even people who should know better, like English teachers for example, express dislike of the short story form. The exeprience of reading through a collection or anthology (say at a story a day)can be just as immersive and spell-bindingly transformative as a longer narrative, if not more so.

    1. Thanks, Gerard, for your input. As you say, the desire for immersion and being spell-bound can be fed by a collection or anthology–and even a finely told long short story. I think of your collection Caravan Thieves and how someone who only reads longer work and not your short stories would miss out on something very different to–yet equally spell-binding as–your novels.

  2. This is such a great idea- Patty I’ve just sent a long screed to you via email.

    I agree with Gerard’s point – that immersion in a good short story collection is every bit as mesmersising as a novel – nay, more so!

    I can’t quite fathom what it is that causes the resistance in some readers – but it is that that must feed any reluctance in the publishing houses to risk precious resources (as they see it…)
    However – heartening news, my own editor at Bloomsbury bought a short story collection last year I think from a new young British writer – can’t wait to read that one. More when I have it.

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