Tag Archives: short stories

Short Stories

I hate short stories.

When I mentioned this fact to a friend of mine, he was incredulous as to how this was possible. He just couldn’t believe that a writer who wrote short stories wouldn’t like short stories. I suspect the phenomenon is more common than he thinks.

A short story should do everything a novel should do. It needs to entertain, it needs to educate, illuminate, or instill a sense of wonder, and it needs to have beautiful prose. In a novel, you have 100,000 words to do all of these things, but in a short story you have perhaps 5000 to do the same thing. In that short of medium, each of the qualities begin to fight for room. Do you write a fun story at the expense of any real substance? Do you pack so much information into a story that you sacrifice quality prose? Do you write the most beautiful, florid prose that ultimately says nothing at all?

A good short story must balance these competing qualities perfectly or you will lose your reader. As I reader, though, short stories often fail to do just that. I subscribe to the reader response criticism theory of literature. A story has little meaning outside of self satisfaction if no information is being transferred from author to reader. The author might have had the best idea, intent, or technical skill, but if it doesn’t translate into readership and understand, what’s the point? It’s like a museumgoer rushing past a Rothko painting to get to a Picasso or a Van Gogh because ultimately the
Rothko just a giant square. In this sense, most short stories I have read have failed because they were unable to bring me, the reader, along for the ride. It is true that for other readers they may have been successful, just as plenty of critics love Rothko, but ultimately I can only speak for myself.

Despite my difficulty in finding a good short story, I do not want to leave you with the impression that no one can write them well. The short story author who stands out in my mind as particularly successful is Ursula K. LeGuin, particularly her short stories Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come out Tonight and Foam Woman, Rain Woman. Neither are the stories usually talked about in classes, but they are the ones I remember a decade after having read them. That, ultimately, is their greatest success and why I continue to try and write short stories despite my dislike for them.

POSTSCRIPT: As of this writing, I happily have six finished first drafts of short stories just waiting to be edited. (And of course hopefully published and read by an audience.)