In an age of sound bites, download apps, tweets, and multi-tasking, the short tale stands proud, an elegant choice in a fast-paced world. For the reader, short stories fit snug into time slots between flights, a wait at the doctor’s office, or those lost minutes while kids finish some ubiquitous practice. For those sleepless nights, they are just right.
A form of narrative prose with no set length, the short story spins out a slice of life plot, a limited number of characters, and sometimes a moral lesson all nestled in a narrow setting or place. Best part – it fits into a single reading session.
Emerging from oral traditions, the short story advanced as a separate form around 1884. Brander Matthews, an American running behind the curve, simply labeled the style that Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Kate Chopin, and others prolifically penned.
By the late 1900s high-profile magazines—think Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post—published short stories in each issue. By the 60s readers saw Wallace Stegner writing the West, Flannery O’Connor and Southern Gothic, Grace Paley with her distinctive Jewish-American voice and other short form writers weekly.
To those that dismiss the short story form, hold fast. Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds?” Or “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proux? What about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Charles Dickson’s classic “Christmas Carol” and the iconic “Stagecoach” based on Ernest Haycock’s “Stage to Lordsburg.” Movies “Total Recall,” “The Misfits,” and “The Lawnmower Man” began life as short stories.
Haven’t discovered or explored the short form? Here are some suggestions available through your local bookstore or library.
“The Agriculture Hall of Fame” by Andrew Malan Milward is a debut collection from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Centered in the mid-West, these tales of tumbledown rural barns and modern urban hospitals, damaged Vietnam Vets and their brooding children, and cavernous hugs and hollow emotions are raw and unflinching.
Dennis Lehane’s collection of five stories and a play, “Coronado: Stories,” spins on class, violence, gender and choice. The day Bobby was released from prison and picked up by his hustler father, plays edgy into the reader’s consciousness with Lehane’s centerpiece tale, “Until Gwen.” Gwen being Bobby’s girlfriend. Other of Lehane’s gritty stories offer the reader that genius we have come to expect of the author of “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island” in nugget size.
Twenty contemporary stories by new and seasoned writers packaged for the first time by Paris Review are included in “Object Lessons.” A gem of a book, “Object Lessons” includes essays and commentaries on today’s newest and brightest short stories and their authors. Great choice for teachers, students, or readers looking for informational spice.
Emma Donoguhe’s “Astray” gives a nod to why restless folks stray across the borders of their hearts and geography intent on moving away. She deftly clusters her tales into Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths. “A Man and Boy,” a poignant fact-based tale included in the collection, follows Walter and an elephant as they become inseparable and travel from England across the Atlantic to America as rouges.
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” renders poetic stories filled with animals, life’s minutiae, and the power of our natural urges. Well-crafted sentences and insight into the soul of things are her special gifts to readers. When protagonist Gray in “Every Vein a Tooth,” gives his animal activist girlfriend a choice between him and her dogs, cats, birds, and other critters, she accepts his ultimatum and chooses. Smart choice? Maybe. Bergman’s stories tap into our desire to save the natural environment while acknowledging the impossibility of it all.
Reading short stories offers manageable size literature and brief escapes. ‘Tweet’ your reading and keep an eye out for the next short story film adaptation.