Do People Still Read Short Stories?

Yesterday I read, “43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language” by Emily Temple over at Literary Hub. Her essay begins 

Last year, I put together this list of the most iconic poems in the English language; it’s high time to do the same for short stories. But before we go any further, you may be asking: What does “iconic” mean in this context? Can a short story really be iconic in the way of a poem, or a painting, or Elvis?

Well, who knows, but for our purposes, “iconic” means that the story has somehow wormed its way into the general cultural consciousness—a list of the best short stories in the English language would look quite different than the one below.

I was able to look up her 43 titles on the internet and found most of them available to read online. I assume that’s because those stories are taught in schools and colleges and teachers have put them online as pdf files so their students can read them for an assignment. I doubt that’s legal, but it’s convenient for me.

Are these stories iconic because a captive audience has been made to study them? Does forced cultural literary constitute a kind of fandom? I’m sure Emily Temple and I are the kind of book nerds that love these stories, but just how many other people do?

I went to Amazon looking for anthologies that might contain these stories. I assumed if they were iconic then they’d be readily available, but they weren’t. The only anthology I found that had more than a couple of these stories is an old one I already owned. It had 7 of the 43, which is pretty good. That volume, The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn is probably a textbook, but it seems to be out-of-print. I found a few other textbooks that had some of the 43 stories, but at most three. However, the same authors are anthologized over and over again, so there seems to be disagreement as to what their best stories might be.

This still leaves me thinking Emily Temple’s 43 iconic stories aren’t that iconic outside of hardcore bookworms. These stories definitely aren’t iconic like Classic Rock albums or the old TV shows that rerun on MeTV or TVLand which have tens of millions of fans across generations.

I added the 43 stories to a Google Sheet and put in links to where I found the stories online. I plan to read them all. I also plan to add other lists of “iconic” short stories to this spreadsheet, and read them too.

Last night I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a bit of horror fluff that didn’t have much to say philosophically, nor did it reveal anything about life in 1843 America. I can’t believe we make children read it. There’s got to be better Poe to force onto younsters. 

On the other hand, rereading “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omeleas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is intensely philosophical and I imagine an excellent story to trick teens into thinking about deep concepts.

How many people still read short stories after they leave school? Probably damn few. That isn’t to say that Edgar Allan Poe or Eudora Welty don’t have their fans, but are their followers a large enough crowd to swing over the needle of a pop culture meter when mentioned on Jeopardy? Well, some Jeopardy contestants would be the kind of folks to read short stories.

More and more, I’m getting into short stories. I’m reading over three hunded of them a year. But it also feels like I’m withdrawing from reality. My friends want to talk about novels, or movies, or TV shows — and I can’t. And they aren’t interested in discussing short stories.

I imagine kids when assigned to read short stories today feel about the same way as we did when forced to do quardratic equations back in our school days. No, I don’t think the word iconic applies to Emily Temple’s list of old short stories. But what’s the right word?

I wonder if that word is in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I wish I knew Greek and Latin so I could make up a word for loving art forms going extinct. Or a word for cherishing fadding pop culture successes of the past. Anachronostalgia? 

It has been said that writers write to become immortal, but that immortality only lasts as long as people continue to read what they wrote. What’s a word for keeping old works of art alive? It’s kind of a good deed, don’t you think? Of course, not as good as helping a real person in need, but it’s still a kindly thing to do.


10 thoughts on “Do People Still Read Short Stories?”

  1. Many short stories become iconic via school, which is where I encountered many of the (older) stories on the list. I suspect movies also have a big impact, note some of the more contemporary ones (Brokeback Mountain, several of the SF/F stories). It’s my impression very few readers – as opposed to writers, people in literary fields, etc – read short stories. Matt Bell and Amber Sparks were just bemoaning this on Twitter, sharing short story collections people might like in between novels. I think a lot of short story writers from the early 20th century actually made significant money from writing for magazines, but we don’t really read fiction in magazines any more (a couple of major slicks like The New Yorker aside). Our fiction tends to glow from screens.

    And by the way, Jake Weber and I are already talking about the upcoming Best American Short Stories 2020 volume, and our annual post-fest on those stories, if you’d like to join us; release date is Nov 3 [assuming we’re still here on Nov. 4].

    I love the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Vellichor (the strange wistfulness of used bookstores), Jouska (a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head).

    I don’t know of any name for one who loves lost arts, but as a fan of medieval manuscripts I know a great many people who work hard to preserve techniques of bookmaking going back millennia – to papyrus, bamboo, and other forms of supports, plus the making of ink from various substances. If you google “lost art forms” you’ll discover a great many interesting efforts to preserve various arts, from puppetry to dyes to music.

  2. The Tell Tale Heart is a horror fluff?
    It covers universal human themes like guilt and how guilt drives our behaviors. It delves into madness. It selves into intimate violence and how senseless it is, yet those who commit it will look for any any justification (like the old man’s eye).

    Plenty of people read Poe. You can stop kissing your own butt already. You aren’t the only human who reads

    1. I described “The Tell-Tale Heart” as fluff because it’s so short. I don’t think Poe took enough time to work up a horrific atmosphere as he does in some of his other stories. Yes, plenty of people read Poe, but how many read him after they’ve left school and for their own amusement? He’s still popular by certain bookworms, but his popularity isn’t in the millions like TV audiences or video games. Pop culture has moved away from short stories.

      Back in the 1920s, I’ve read a writer could make more money writing short shorties than publishing novels because reading short stories were that popular. Even in my lifetime, some SF magazines had more than 100,000 paying readers. Now the big three are down to the 10,000-20,000 range each. That’s still a lot of people, yet isn’t that less than .01% of the U.S. population?

  3. I recall my 7th grade class enjoying Tell-Tale Heart. Admittedly, my 7th grade English teacher was awesome, so that may be what ultimately has an impact on the enjoyment.

  4. A couple of side notes on Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart:

    Anthony Marra wrote an update of the story for McSweeney’s; it ended up in Pushcart 2019. It featured a guy who kept taking selfies to post to Tinder, driving his roommate crazy-homicidal; then it’s the phone ringing, rather than a heartbeat, that eventually exposes the murder (and it’s a real ringing, not imagined). Interesting switch of elements: selfies and phones rather than a clouded eye, and a phone and a dating app rather than a heart.

    Second: I’ve been working on Spanish on Duolingo. One of the features is a set of “stories” in spanish that you listen to and fill in some blanks or answer questions about what’s happening – mostly everyday stuff, people interacting with friends and families, going on trips, shopping, etc. One exception was a telling of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. The reader gives an exceptionally dramatic (and loud) rendition. They got so many complaints about it – both the story itself, and the reading style – they replaced it with other stuff at the last update!

  5. About 30 years ago, my friend Jeff Meyerson mentioned to me that he read a short story each day. Jeff and I were having lunch between sessions at a BOUCHERCON (the World Mystery Convention) when he dropped that bomb on me. Jeff said he’d been reading a short story per day for years. When I returned home from BOUCHERCON, I decided I’d follow Jeff’s example and started reading a short story each day. I’ve continued that habit for decades now. It’s a satisfying activity which requirement me to constantly add short story anthologies to my book collection.

  6. I’m late to the show here (as usual), but I’ve decided to devote 2021 to the short story. Over these past Covid months, I’ve been reading more shorts than usual (both genre and contemporary), and have discovered a few wonderful writers. Most of my life (55 years) I’ve been a novel guy and for the past 40 years I’ve generally read a book a week. However the past six months, I’ve had a hard time getting into my book readin’ groove. Not sure why, maybe it ‘s due to with working from home since March or something. I’m going to start with BASS/Pushcart/O’Henry collections, and work my way through Hugo/Nebula nominees. As I’ve researched the field, I’ve found a number of excellent resources and guides as well. I could go on, but I’ll finish up by stating I think the short story is due for a resurgence (shortened attentions spans, easy access, etc). Thanks, James, love your work!

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