In Defense of the Short Story

Years ago, we moved to the ‘transitional” neighborhood of Germantown (in Philadelphia), then said to be on the verge of a comeback. There was much talk about The Germantown Renaissance which was talked about breathlessly and in the tone of reverence usually reserved for people who “know” computers and pop stars who appear in bikinis two weeks after giving birth. Sixteen years later there is still talk of The Germantown Renaissance. This reminds me of all the news that short stories were poised for a comeback, its return to popularity fueled, in part, by shrinking attention spans and the proliferation of electronic devices.  I am as dubious about the Short Story Renaissance as I am about The Germantown Renaissance.

Short stories seem to be the stepchild of literature.  Publishers don’t seem to want to publish them. When I started shopping around my first collection of short stories, I was told that no one would publish a collection of short stories, unless I’d first written a novel length work. This seemed to me counterintuitive. How was I to write a novel without being able to write a short story?

No one seems to want to read them either. My short story collection, Damaged Angels, sold exactly eight copies in the first six months after its release. Eight. Copies. I bought two of those eight myself.

Even readers seem to see short stories as less than. I’ve seen reviews of short stories on Goodreads, in which the reader/reviewer stated he/she shaved points of the rating because he/she wanted “more.” I find this a baffling objection. Short stories are by their very nature…well…short. 

I admit I’m a fan of the short story. As I’ve said, I started out writing short stories. I understand and am intrigued by the challenge of telling a story in short form: what do you include? what do you leave out and up to the reader’s imagination?

In my stories, whether they are short fiction or not, I am fine with leaving certain things unspoken. For example in What Binds Us, Mrs. Whyte has no first name. Because she is so formidable and distant, no one can get any closer than the formal address: Mrs. Whyte. I’ve had readers ask me what her first name is. In truth, I do not know. She never told me, and I, like everyone else didn’t dare to ask—to do so would attempt an intimacy expressly forbidden. In addition, we never solve the mystery of Colin’s paternity. Or learn how the AIDS crisis started. Matthew makes a compelling argument for it being a deliberate government-supported conspiracy and in fact there is still a school of thought that insists this is the case. When doing research for the book I came across many conspiracy theories, many of them plausible, but whether or not we will ever learn the truth is difficult to say. And that is, in part, my point. In life, we often simply don’t know. We are not privy to other people’s motives or thought. My father fought in the Korean War. In the 55 years I have been his son all he has ever said about his experiences in Korea is: “I’ve never been so cold in my life” and “If you ever saw rice being grown, you wouldn’t eat it.”

In the 18 years we’ve been together, I can count on my two hands the number of times my husband has told me he loves me.

This past year, I had the honor of being part of a panel of authors judging books for an awards program. My biggest complaint about some of the work I read was the authors told too much. It was if they wanted to be sure you got their intent exactly, as if they didn’t trust the reader to infer or draw their own conclusions. This tendency to “overtell” was especially troubling when the story was told in the first person from the main character’s point of view. In one book, the main character not only gave us excruciating detail about his own motives, inner turmoil, etc. but he also did it for all of the other characters when realistically he (the main character) could not possibly know what was on the mind of every other character.

Readers, I think have the right to interpret your book, to draw their own conclusions.

I know author and publisher Debbie McGowan has received some criticism for how she has ended at a least a couple of her books, accused of leaving readers “hanging” or not “finishing” the story. But really in life when we reach the end of one chapter, or we start a journey, we often have no idea what comes next. And that can be exciting. That’s just the way life is and after all shouldn’t our fiction reflect life? 

Will short stories really make a comeback? Who knows? But I love short stories and to paraphrase the Headmaster in the movie “The History Boys” Fuck the Renaissance.

That said, I am happy to report that I have a new story—“The Christmas Present”—being released November 21 from Beaten Track Publishing as part of their Holiday Anthology, Boughs of Evergreen. Boughs of Evergreen, a two-volume collection of short stories celebrates the holiday season in all its diversity. Twenty-three stories penned by 24 authors from the UK, the USA, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, these are tales of the young and the not-so-young from many different walks of life.

Available in paperback and eBook editions.
Each story is also being published individually as an eBook (December 1st, 2014).

Proceeds from sales of this anthology will be donated to The TrevorProject, the leading national organization [USA] providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.
 

About “The Christmas Present”


BLURB: At Christmastime, a mother, unhappy her teenage son is gay, turns to an Obeah practitioner to change him with surprising results.

This story has an almost hypnotic dream-like quality. Dealing with Obeah, or “black magic,” it leaves the reader to question what is real and what is not. As one character cautions another, believe, or don’t believe. The choice is yours.

Because I knew from the beginning that proceeds from the sale of the anthology would go to benefit The Trevor Project, I wanted to write a story that focused on the demographic The Trevor Project attempts to help.

Learn more about Boughs of Evergreen here.
 
Read reviews of my current two favorite short stories, "A Closed Door" by Andrew Q. Gordon and

 
If you want to know more about my thoughts on writing, watch my Outside the Margins video interview with Andrew Q. Gordon.

Comments

  1. I have to admit I have a love/hate relationship with short stories. Specifically, there comes a short story every now and then that is larger (or longer) than the words that compose it. On the one hand, I want those to be novels. On the other hand, they are so brilliantly executed as short stories they leave me breathless. How could I not want more.

    It's also true that there are those novels that should be short stories, or at least shorter stories. I remember reading one of the Harry Potter books and at one point said to myself 'in the movie, this section will be a montage.' And it was.

    My current short story collection is The 10th of December by George Saunders.

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    Replies
    1. That is, my current favorite short story collection is...

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    2. I agree it's not the number of words but the size of the story that matters. I love short stories in part because I have a short attention span. That's also why I write relatively short novels. I read somewhere that Charles Dickens, one of my favorite writers, was paid by the word and that is why his books are so long.

      As I write I caution myself, "Lawrence you are not being paid by the word; get on with it."

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    3. Hard to go wrong with George Sanders.

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