“The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth.”
-Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
…and still think (as I thought then) that it is more worthy in the eyes of God and better for us as a people if a writer make three pages sharp and funny about the lives of geese than to make three hundred flat and flabby about God or the American people.”
-Garrison Keillor, Introduction to Happy To Be Here
I like short stories. I’ve been reading them for a long time – since I was about twelve or so. I started out with, not surprisingly for a young boy, science fiction stories. From Asimov and Clarke to Heinlein and Bradbury, I read them and more. Stories like Nightfall,Mars is Heaven! and The Nine Billion Names of God. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lifelong attachment to the form itself was being forged, one that is now approaching forty years. Over those years, I have also read a fair amount of non-fiction, biographies and novels. With regards to that other fiction form, novels, though I am amused by the following quote from Louise Bogan, “I believe in the short story and the long short story. The novel, never. To hell with the novel”, I would never say it myself. I read and enjoy novels too. But for me, they are quite a distant second to the short story.
I know, of course, that puts me in the minority, and I also know it is a very small minority. Most people just don’t read stories, or essays for that matter, and that’s shame. My guess is that when they’re thought about, the image is probably of being force-fed Hemmingway or Emerson in an English class and agonizing over those study questions that student anthologies specialize in. So it’s not surprising that most of us not only don’t read short prose but have a bad taste in our minds for this type of writing. And that’s a shame too. For when a story or a large thought is packed into a small space, it becomes like a seed waiting to be planted in a reader’s mind. And what ultimately flowers is a unique something that adds color to our human experience.
These are hard times all around for the short story. Though a small readership has always been taken for granted, there was a time not too long ago when very high quality fiction was published in numerous popular magazines. For example, The Saturday Evening Post published stories by William Faulkner and Harpers Bazaar published Eudora Welty. The Atlantic Monthly published Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway among many others. By publishing short fiction, magazines made writing short fiction profitable and thereby attractive. But this has been changing for a long time with many magazines reducing or outright eliminating short fiction from their offerings. In 2005 The Atlantic Monthly dropped short fiction in their monthly publication in favor of a single yearly issue devoted to it.* The magazine’s executive editor, Cullen Murphy, while stating that the yearly issue meant The Atlantic would keep publishing short fiction, said the decision to drop monthly publication boiled down to “a question of real estate in the regular monthly issue.” To me this says they believe there are more profitable things to print – and, sadly, there probably are. It doesn’t help either that, from what I can gather, most publishing houses look at short stories as something a fiction writer does between their real job: writing novels.**
So what we have here is my little voice, my testimony if you will, to the wonder of all writing that is short. My hope is that you, dear visitor, will leave curious enough to reconsider them. Perhaps on some late night when sleep is hard to come by. Perhaps some warm, lazy afternoon, when the last item has been crossed off of the to-do list. Perhaps the very ones in that old freshman anthology that’s been gathering dust on your shelf all these years.
* The Atlantic reversed course on this in 2010, and went back to publishing short fiction in the monthly editions, though every edition does not carry a story.
** The Atlantic in 2009 did become the first periodical to do something novel with the short story. I’m not sure how I feel about it though. Click here to find our what it is.
Note: The original essays I have uploaded concern aspects of short prose I find particularly interesting.
About me: I am a physicist by training and work at a small scientific instrument manufacturer in Delaware.
The title for the site comes from a quote of Robert Frost. Joyce Carol Oates mentions the same quote in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century. It applies to all good writing.
“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, a poem must ride its own melting.”
-Robert Frost, The Figure a Poem Makes