Short stories, that is.
Thanks to Eden Royce, I learned that May is Short Story Month. I spent the first part of May reading a book for one of my book clubs, but now that I’ve finished that, I’ve decided to use the second half of May to read short stories. And who better to read than Ray Bradbury?
Outside Fahrenheit 451 and a smattering of his short stories here and there, I haven’t read much by him (she admits, hanging her head in shame). He’s one of those authors whose influence has been so pervasive across pop culture and all genres of writing that I always think I’ve read more of his work than I actually have. So what better month to rectify that? Lucky for me, I received a huge collection of his short stories for Christmas. At least I know where to start!
I didn’t read many short stories growing up, at least not on my own. I remember reading some from a book in English class in middle school; I think that book even had a few Twilight Zone transcripts in it that we read aloud. And of course at some point in my schooling I read The Lady, or the Tiger? and The Most Dangerous Game.
But I didn’t spend a lot of time searching out short story collections; I didn’t read any literary magazines or genre magazines regularly. The novel was my form of choice, and so I always just assumed I would be a novel writer. I suppose for a long time I fell into the common trap of thinking short stories were just ‘practice’ instead of legitimate tales in and of themselves.
Now I know better. Although for a while short stories fell out of the public eye somewhat, with Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, it’s safe to say the short story has definitely made a comeback. And now that I know more about writing and writers in general, it’s clear to me that few writers stick to one format. Almost all have novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, comics and a slew of other formats to their names.
I’ve also found that most of my own ideas are more suited to a short story format. I do have a full-length novel in the works, but that is more of a long-haul project. Short stories certainly take time in themselves, but sometimes I don’t want to spend months or years working on one project. I doubt I’ll ever be as productive as someone like Bradbury, who supposedly wrote a short story every week while he was alive and writing, but I like having a few projects in progress at the same time; when I feel stuck on one I can turn to another. Whenever I decide it’s time to go back to my novel, it’s usually all I can focus on, so I have to make sure I’m ready for that commitment again. When I’m not, working on some short stories is a perfect way to keep my writing momentum going.
Even though short stories are complete in themselves, they often hint at larger worlds or unexplored subplots. Sometimes the writer will return to explore those clues themselves, but sometimes that task is left to the reader’s imagination. Sometimes short stories are intentionally just snippets from an implied larger event (I don’t mean an excerpt from a novel): a self-contained story that is also part of a larger untold story. This versatility is part of what I love about short stories.
I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy speculative fiction for the what-if questions it allows writers and readers to explore, and I think the short story format is particularly suited to this. Sometimes a writer wants to pose one of these questions but doesn’t have—or want—an answer. They ask the question, explore it a little and leave it at that. A good example of this is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (you must have known I wouldn’t talk about the short story without talking about my favorite author, right?). The story presents us with a society that seems perfect, but that perfection comes at a price—and the story asks if that price is worth it, but it doesn’t provide a definitive answer.
A novel can accomplish this as well, of course, but sometimes things get lost or muddied in subplots on top of subplots or convoluted character arcs. Sometimes a short story is the cleanest way to allow a sharp focus on a small number of questions or problems or characters. In the end, only the writer (maybe with input from an editor or fellow writers) can decide what format is best for the story they wish to tell.
I like that the short story is coming back to the general public’s attention (I don’t think it ever really went out of fashion with writers). And if you haven’t had a lot of love for the short story in the past, as either a reader or writer, this is the perfect month to revisit. If you don’t normally write short stories, give it a shot! And if you’re looking for a good short story collection to read this month, I have a few suggestions ;).
When you find a good short story, it can be just as rewarding as reading a novel. And if you find a bad one, well, at least it will be over soon.
What are some of your favorite short stories?