In case you’ve been wondering where to channel your literary energies now that April is over, take heart: May is Short Story Month. And while it may not have reached the level of community outreach that Poetry Month has hit after 15 years, don’t worry… we’ve got people on it.
The short story isn’t exactly ghettoized these days. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge (with two short story collections — In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin and Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys as finalists this year), Oprah’s last Book Club pick was Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, and Sherman Alexie just took the PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances. If Wolf Hall hadn’t walked away with the lion’s share of everything else, I’m sure there would have been room for a few more collections in its great big footprint. But it never hurts to stick up for the little guy, or to remind the general public that short stories aren’t just novels with attention span issues. And that, I think, is the beauty of taking a month out of the year to focus on them.
To that end, the Emerging Writers Network (who commissioned the fine logo above) is having a monthlong series of conversations about the craft of short fiction, including an in-depth discussion in several parts of two stories, Pinckney Benedict’s “Miracle Boy” and Alyson Hagy’s “Border.” It’s been a bit like auditing a very focused lit workshop, with a lot to ponder on in between posts—including a question from Charles May that’s been on my mind as well:
Short stories always require closer, more analytical reading, i.e. more reading like a writer, than novels, don’t you think? Which makes me again pose the question: Do folks have to “learn” how to read short stories in a way they do not have to “learn” how to read novels?
I imagine the answer to that lies largely in the reader’s intent. As with music or art, there’s a whole level of enjoyment that’s possible without any knowledge of technique, theory or history, and it’s not necessarily unsophisticated. But there are levels of discernment and pleasure that come with education about anything, and it goes without saying that literature is up there. And I think short stories lend themselves to that particularly because they’re… well, short. They’re apprehensible; making the effort to puzzle out a story’s workings is like taking the back off a clock, as opposed to touring a pumping station. Much as I make fun of its world domination, I thought Wolf Hall was a terrific novel, wonderfully constructed and ending up as much more than the sum of its (considerable) parts. But there’s no way I’m going to sit down and go through it line by line—unpack it, to use a term that gives me the willies—to see what makes it tick. There aren’t enough hours in the day as it is. I’m content to let Hilary Mantel’s alchemy remain a mystery, but the short story is a form I stand a chance of wrapping my brain around.
Larry Dark, Director of The Story Prize, has set up Storied, a social networking site devoted to bringing the short fiction conversation public. It’s still picking up steam, and anyone who has something to say on the topic, or who’s just interested, should take a look. Right now ideas for short story festivals and a hall of fame are being batted around, and new ideas are most definitely welcome. If you see someone advocating for a National Short Story in Your Pocket Day (which means baggy pants for everyone!), that will be me.