A few months ago, I was at a panel in which several Australian writers spoke about how the short story was a form in need of preservation. It’s kind of funny that particular creative forms are implicitly recognised as endangered. After all, you don’t hear many divas worrying about the continued existence of the three-minute pop song. When you get a bunch of short story writers in a room, though, the topic of conversation often drifts to wondering why there are way more writers of short stories than readers of them. The supply of bad short stories seems to far exceed the demand for great ones.
My view is that if you don’t like something, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I’ve long since given up trying to figure out poetry, for example. There are just too many good novels and games and TV shows out there for me to joylessly plod through the work of W.H. Auden (though if you do like Auden, obviously, all the more power to you!). I suspect that many feel the same way about short stories: something about the short story form can feel a little ‘off’, even after you’ve read a lot of them. Reading a bad short story is a horrible experience I would wish on no Arts undergrad, but reading a good short story can sometimes be nearly as bad – it can feel like spending just one day in Rome, your delight tempered by the knowledge that you’ll be off before you’ve even really found your bearings.
In short, I still don’t know about short stories. Many (probably most) novelists seem to treat short stories as an afterthought, while emerging writers are encouraged to pitch short stories to literary magazines to build a profile, treating the form as a means to an end. As few writers are primarily interested in the short story, it isn’t very surprising that few readers are, either. That’s kind of a shame, because, though there are a lot of bad-to-middling short story writers out there, there are at least a few pretty good ones, too.
One of the great ones is Charles Yu, whose latest collection Sorry Please Thank You came out a few months back. The stories are the kind you can explain in single sentences. In one, Yu engages in an epistolary dialogue with versions of himself that exist in parallel universes. In another, the protagonist works for a Bangalore-based company that lets the wealthy outsource feeling emotional pain. Unsurprisingly, Yu has often been compared to magical realist Jorge Luis Borges. Once, Borges was asked how he wrote his short stories and he said something like, “I write a whole novel, then summarise it, and then I have my story.” Borges couldn’t write anything but short stories because he thought novels were too full of fluff. Though Yu is actually pretty good at writing novels, I suspect he’d agree.
I’ve also been rereading a few neither-old-nor-new short story collections over the past few weeks: Miranda July’s Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, Amanda Maxwell’s Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These, Joey Comeau’s It’s Too Late To Say I’m Sorry, and Tao Lin’s Bed. I return to these collections all the time the same way I return to particular pieces of music. July and Lin can both be difficult to take in large doses, but their short story collections are charming, Comeau’s stories are based around wonderful conceits (in one, the protagonist runs autobiographical bike tours around Nova Scotia, taking tourists to visit each of his exes in turn) and Maxwell’s stories always make me think of summer. I read these collections less for the narratives than for the texture of the writing (which, I know, sounds like a horribly English Literature postgrad kind of thing to say). I reread stories from Lorrie Moore for the same reason, too (if you’re new to Moore, start with the story ‘How To Be an Other Woman’).
I’m also a big fan of the Review of Australian Fiction. The RoAF emails out two new stories a fortnight as ebooks, pairing one well-known Australian writer with one up-and-comer. It’s a solid concept, and it’s a good way to dip into a lot of work from a range of Australian writers.
As somebody who’s given it a go and failed many times over, I can tell you that it’s easier to write a bad short story than a novel, but writing a great short story is probably the most difficult literary undertaking of all. For that reason alone, I do hope the short story has as sure a future as three-minute pop song. You can give me J.D. Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ over J.T.’s ‘Sexyback’ any day of the week (though I’ll grant you that both are, indeed, triumphs of their respective forms).