May is Short Story Month. As a writer and reader, my love for the short story has been a long-term commitment. I am not the only bookseller, however, who has found that devotion tested on a regular basis by customers on the sales floor.
How long is a short story?
This was one of the first questions I was asked during the late 1990s when I led a six-session discussion group on reading short stories. It was a good question. I wouldn't say we answered it during our time together, but our exploration yielded hints of how great, if not how long, a short story could be. And the group offered me a chance to talk and listen to gifted readers who were also customers of the bookstore where I worked.
We began with resistance to the call of the story. Many group members had taken part at one time or another in a variation of the following conversation on the bookshop's sales floor:
Customer: It says stories; I don't read stories. When I read a book, I want to be completely involved with the characters and let them take me away. Stories end too soon.
Me: Not if they're good stories.
They were still willing to show up, however, and our subsequent readings and conversations may even have changed--or tempered--a few of their objections to the form.
Strangely enough, the book I used for the discussion group--You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard--became a handselling favorite at the bookstore, selling more than 400 copies before it went out of print.
Butler's collection always sold well, too; as did another Pulitzer winner, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. A few less publicized collections moved occasionally when a bookseller found the magic words to make a particular title beguiling. It didn't happen enough.
I noticed recently that the current edition of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain no longer includes the word "stories" next to the title on its cover. The original edition did. Here's a confession: When asked, I have often advised authors and publishers to resist the temptation to add "stories" (or worse, "a novel in linked stories") to book jackets because it is such a conversation stopper on the sales floor.
I love good short stories because I love good writing. I'm reading two collections now, and in the car last weekend I listened to Alec Baldwin read Steven Millhauser's "The Dome" (from Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories) on Selected Shorts. It became one of those classic NPR driveway moments.
I even love reading about short story renaissances. I was intrigued by a recent Reuters article (via PC Magazine) about Ether Books, which offers "a catalog of short stories, essays and poetry initially via Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, by authors including Alexander McCall-Smith and Louis de Bernieres."
"The tech press may be slavering over the iPad, Kindle and Sony eReader as traditional publishers leap over themselves to expand their e-book offerings," Maureen Scott, digital director for the company, told Reuters. "But at Ether Books we've made the decision to go straight to distributing short works via our iPhone app to devices people already own, are familiar with and are happy to use when they have 10-15 minutes to spare."
You often hear the argument that short stories should be more popular now than ever because of the limitations on our reading time. It sounds so logical for something that never seems to come true.
Another Short Story Month is in gear and I keep thinking of questions.
Do writers care more about short stories than non-writing readers do?
And this question from Hansen and Shepard in their anthology's introduction:
Wouldn't it be great, we thought, if there were an anthology based upon the stories that other writers feel passionate about?
It was great. And it was even greater still that talented readers among our customers discovered that passion, too, but I wonder what story collection, if any, they read next.
What is a short story?
"Short stories are fierce, tight, imploding universes where every word matters," said Colum McCann in the National Post.
I like that. So, happy Short Story Month. And one last question: What's your favorite short story collection?
--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1187.