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Tiny Windows: My Uneasy Relationship with the Short Story

I have a short story problem.

In my reading queue right now, I have four unfinished short story anthologies. One is by HG Wells; another by LeGuin. A third, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, has been widely touted as one of the most important anthologies to come out in the last few years. I recently ran across Charlie Jane Anders’ post on i09 titled “Essential Short Story Anthologies that Every Writer Should Read.” In response to that, plus a few other conversations I’ve been following recently, I’ve now requested precisely 7 anthologies from my local library.

Short stories are important for writers. I know that conventional wisdom states most authors, regardless of genre, get started with short stories, because they’re the way to get past the Catch-22 that blocks people from serious consideration with agents and editors (that you won’t be taken seriously without any publications, but you can’t get any publications unless someone takes you seriously). I know that the big genre-writing workshops, like Clarion (which I’ve seriously considered and rejected as a summer indulgence at least twice now) are all about honing the craft of the short story. I completely agree with the point Anders makes in her post, about why short stories are an essential component of the field:

Short stories are the lifeblood of science fiction and fantasy — novels get all the buzz and the parties, but short fiction is where the wildest ideas and coolest characters come out.

It’s the same principle as what I tell my sociology students about the difference between journal articles and monographs. Books take a long time to come out; in the time it takes a book to go through the publishing dance, its content might become less cutting-edge. There’s a bigger investment with books, so gatekeepers are less likely to take risks on them; conversely, when you get down to it, any schmo can get a book published, while short pieces dependent on publication in some moderated medium have more quality control. That’s the reason I subscribed to Fantasy and Science Fiction for years, the same reason I try to keep current with the American Journal of Sociology; because periodicals are where the cutting-edge stuff happens.

I know and understand all of that. And yet I still can’t find a big place in my heart for the short story. I’ve written a couple (including both of my technical publications to date); I have a few well-worn anthologies that I’ve kept through a dozen moves. But in the end, my love is the big story. My tastes in writing and reading run to thousands of pages, long elaborate stories with dozens of characters and massive plot arcs.

I increasingly suspect the main reason for this is that I’m a character person: whether as writer or reader, I like watching my protagonists grow and change, and especially go through multiple changes. In a short story, you’re frequently limited to one big change. There are other problems with the format for me, too. I tend to like my worldbuilding explicit; if you’re writing a short story in a world that isn’t this one, you either need to shorthand your setting or leave a lot of it in the hands of the reader to interpret. I’m also not someone who typically spends much time appreciating other authors’ prose: although I admire a beautiful sentence as much as the next person, I’m much more interested in bulldozing through the lavish descriptions of setting looking to find out what happens. Short stories, by virtue of their compactness, seem to rely a lot more on careful reading and reflection on each carefully chosen word.

There are a few authors whose stories I reliably enjoy, the most notable of whom is Stephen King (I continue to be envious of his ability to write good short stories, good novellas and good doorstops). But King’s short stories are different than LeGuin’s, or Wells’s. For the most part, a 15-page King story will be focused on a central gimmick. There might be a poor guy who’s confronted with a finger poking up out of his bathroom sink (“The Moving Finger,”) or a poor sap who’s trying to quit smoking (“Quitters, Inc.”), or a couple whose car breaks down in a strange town (“Children of the Corn”; “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band”; really, too many others to count ;)). But the picture is compact, and the story centers around a single concept.

Before I started this blog entry, I found a quote by Neil Gaiman that I think speaks to my short story dilemma: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” This is a lovely phrase, and I think it speaks exactly to what genre writers who go after short stories are looking to accomplish — but generally, it’s not what I want. I don’t want to be back in time for dinner; I want to disappear to Westeros or Southmarch or the Final Empire for a week at a time. Those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved, and the ones I’ve always wanted to tell. I want readers to feel they know my characters well enough to have conversations with them, and you can’t have a conversation through a tiny window.

I’m going to keep reading short stories; I’m going to make it through those long-ago purchased anthologies I’ve got sitting around my house, and I’ll try to read the ones I’ve collected from the library, too. Because they’re an important aspect of the genre I’m trying to write in, and because every now and again, I find one that speaks to me (to be uber-stereotypical for a moment, there’s very little out there more powerful than LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”).

But for better or worse, I’m coming to accept that my heart belongs to the doorstops.

For those who might be interested, some anthologies I’ve read and enjoyed:

  • Adams & Cohen, Oz Reimagined
  • Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
  • Bradbury, Bradbury Stories
  • Card, Maps in a Mirror
  • Anything by King (he’s got 6 or 7 sets, I think)

…and the collection I’ve assembled from the benevolent local library system:

  • Beagle, The Secret History of Fantasy
  • Campbell & Hall, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond
  • Dillon, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
  • Griffith & Pagel, Bending the Landscape (Fantasy): an anthology that labels itself as “queer fantasy”, including stories by queer authors and about queer characters
  • Hayden, Starlight 1
  • Kelly & Kessel, The Secret History of Science Fiction
  • Van Gelder, The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction