Whatever Happened to Short Stories?

Not too long ago a guy at work and I were talking about all the great short stories we read as kids: Melleville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, London’s How to Build a Fire, Conrad’s Typhoon. I used to get collections of short stories out of the school library: Sake, Twain, O’ Henry. When I was older I read all of Hemingway’s short stories, and I still think of Big Two-Hearted River every time I heat up a can of pork and beans.

In my late teens I fell in love with Fitzgerald’s stories (The Ice Palace, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz). And Young Goodman Brown by Hawthorne is still one of the scariest stories I ever read. Then there are the stories whose authors I can’t recall but whose images are still with me. There was one called My Father Sits in the Dark about a young kid who keeps finding his father alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night – just sitting there in the darkness. This is not to mention all of the science fiction short stories I read as a kid: Heinlein’s The Nine-Billion Names of God, Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog, and many of the stories in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I haven’t read sci-fi in years. In fact, the last short story passion I can recall was discovering Isaac Babel in my mid 20s.

I stopped reading short stories after that, and I’m not sure why. Maybe my interest in them died during an MA program in creative writing, when I had to read everyone’s dreadful efforts. Everybody said in those days that the short story was dying. There were fewer and fewer magazines buying the genre, and book publishers would never take a chance on an unestablished author’s collection. The short story, everyone agreed, was mere apprentice work for the novel.

Indeed, in all of the years I have read the New Yorker, I’ve never bothered much with its fiction. The “literary” stories that appear there always seemed such a rarefied taste: all those rudderless adulterers slouching toward some bleak irresolution and another divorce. One writing instructor in grad school told me the key to getting published in the New Yorker was to write a perfectly plotted story and then lop off the last three pages. That always struck me about right.

“Literary” fiction always seemed so earnest. It lacked the zest of the stories I loved as a kid. But maybe that’s not right either. A “literary’ short story (whatever that may be) just seems to lack something, but I really can’t say what. Maybe it just lacks the energy of being a part of a genre that doesn’t believe itself to be played out.

Funny then that when I went to the library last week to get a collection of short stories I should return with John Cheever, that quintessential New Yorker writer. Still, Cheever’s world of gin-swilling upper-middle class, manic-depressive screw-ups is an interesting world, if only that it’s one receding so rapidly into the past. At any rate, it feels good to be reading short stories again. It’s as if old reading synapses that haven’t fired in years are reawakening. I feel an enjoyment I seldom feel with novels. Maybe it’s because the pleasure is so immediate; maybe it’s because the time investment to aesthetic payoff ratio is so reader-friendly.

I am also in some strange way dimly remembering the reader I once was, the one who read with a kind of fiercely naive belief that a simple well-told story could change my life. Somewhere along the line, of course, that reader also began to recede into the past.


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