I get this question a lot: How do you have time to read? The answer is, sometimes I don’t. Like you, I have to work, go to meetings, take my kids to their activities and volunteer at their schools, make sure there’s milk in the refrigerator (sometimes), and fit in an occasional dinner with my husband and lunch with my friends. I’m also addicted to a bevy of TV shows, from Downton Abbey to Homeland to Project Runway, not to mention, getting my fix of nightly news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And I must maintain my ever-growing e-mail correspondence while also finding time to troll Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest a few hundred times a day to see what everyone else is doing, posting, and pinning. Man, come to think of it, how do I have time to read?
If we believe what we’re told, our schedules are getting fuller, our attention spans are becoming shorter, and our free time is growing increasingly scarce. Whether you blame smartphones, social media, or some other evil of modern life, we seem to suffer from an inability to sit, focus, and tune out the distractions of our world. The times in which we live just don’t seem conducive to reading.
But what if we tried something a little less demanding than a novel, yet a little more challenging than a friend’s Facebook post? What if we picked up a short story?
Yesterday, a short story writer took the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. Alice Munro, whom the Swedish Academy calls “master of the contemporary short story,” is an 82-year-old Canadian writer whose body of work includes 14 short story collections—and no novels. In a phone interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., just after finding out she’d won, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”
There’s some defensiveness in Munro’s tone. Despite her achievements, the comparison between short story writers and novelists is evidently one she’s been plagued by during her career. She even makes reference to it in a story she wrote called “Fiction,” in which the main character, Joyce, comes across a book published by a significant someone she knows: “How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”
So why is it that a writer—a winner of the Nobel Prize, no less—has to defend her medium? What is it about the genre of short stories that makes people, both readers and writers, defensive? No matter how many writers produce them, no matter how many prizes they win, short stories seem to necessitate a Stuart Smalley–style affirmation: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”
So, is a short story a fully realized form that can stand on its own merits, or simply a genre that’s “hanging on to the gates of Literature,” desperately hoping to get inside?
A few writers have tackled this question head-on, making a case that the short story is actually superior to the novel. Author Nadine Gordimer depicts the difference in vivid terms, saying that, more than novels, short stories capture “the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. . . . Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.” In our hectic world, catching fireflies is almost a lost art. But when a writer manages to do it in the form of a short story, we can share in that feeling while reading it—that momentary, intense burst of pleasure that comes when we glimpse a firefly on a summer night, or even when we manage to catch one in our hand.
Anton Chekhov, considered a god among short story writers everywhere, also believed in this genre, emphasizing the importance of creating fiction that is short, to the point, and not too taxing on the reader. Thanks, sir, for catering to our fleeting attention and our simple minds:
You understand it at once when I say, “The man sat on the grass”; you understand it because it is clear and makes no demands on the attention. On the other hand, it is not easily understood, and it is difficult for the mind, if I write, “A tall, narrow-chested, middle-sized man, with a red beard, sat on the green grass, already trampled by pedestrians, sat silently, shyly, and timidly looked about him.”
Edgar Allan Poe, known for chilling tales like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” argues for the importance of brief fiction you can read all at once, without interruption:
[T]he unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting. . . . During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.
See? We don’t have to feel ashamed for not choosing a short read over, say, Pynchon’s Against the Day or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Short stories are a guiltless pleasure tailor-made for busy people like us. They don’t require more time, attention, or commitment than we have to give. And yet they still leave us satisfied and full in the same wonderful way that longer works of literature will.
If you want to catch the flash of a fictional firefly and give a short story a try, check out the reading suggestions below. Leave a comment if I’ve left out any of your favorites.
Here are a few recent short story collections garnering attention:
Alice Munro, Dear Life
Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove
George Saunders, Tenth of December
Unnatural Creatures, collected and edited by Neil Gaiman
If you’re looking for something more classic, you can’t go wrong with these:
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever
Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Stories
Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
If you want to give Munro a quick look, you can read her short story “Fiction” online by clicking here, thanks to a site called Daily Lit.
And if you’re not sure who Stuart Smalley is, here’s a snippet from one of his SNL cameos: