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.

JWH

The Best American Short Stories 2019

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 23, 2019

I’ve been buying The Best American Short Stories for decades but I have never finished reading one from cover-to-cover. I’d always jump around reading whichever story grabbed my attention with its opening lines. For 2019 they finally produced an audiobook edition, and I listened to the whole book. I’m very glad I did because I was introduced to a much more diverse selection of great writing. Going by initial impressions isn’t always wise.

Here’s a listing of the stories with a short comment by me, and a link to either the story itself (rare) or to an analysis by blogger Karen Carlson. She writes the kind of essays about the short stories she reads that I wish I took the time to do. It’s a shame that all of these stories aren’t available online because they all deserve more readers. Some of the sites have limits to free reads. You might try loading the link in a different browser if you’ve reached your limit. Or better yet, just buy The Best American Short Stories 2019. Who knows, maybe you might even be inspired to subscribe to some of these magazines.

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. “The Era” from Guernica  – In the future, they teach kids to be completely honest about their feelings. Fun literary science fiction.
  • Kathleen Alcott. “Natural Light” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Learning about a parent from a photograph. I often speculate about old photographs.
  • Wendell Berry. “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review – A story within a story set in the 1930s. Berry’s entry is a stark contrast to most of the other stories because it feels old. Like it was written long ago.
  • Jamel Brinkley. “No More Than a Bubble” from LitMag – Two guys hook up with two mysterious women for one strange night. Very vivid.
  • Deborah Eisenberg. “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares – Another literary story that could have been published in a science fiction magazine. About a Kafkaesque form of therapy.
  • Julia Elliott. “Hellion” from The Georgia Review – My absolute favorite story of the collection, and luckily available to read online. A young southern Tomboy teaches her visiting cousin how not to get to beat up by her rowdy crowd of friends. Imagine Scout in the 21st century.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides. “Bronze” from The New Yorker – Set in the 1970s, a teen who’s trying to find himself by dressing glam gets picked up by an older man. Nice historical contrast to the more modern stories in the collection.
  • Ella Martinsen Gorham. “Protozoa” from New England Review – Another top favorite from this collection that’s also available to read online. Eighth-grade girl wants to appear more sophisticated but gets in over her head. The stories I liked most in this collection were those set nearest to the present by young writers. It’s not that I didn’t admire what the older writers (Berry, Le Guin, Eugenides) were giving us, but their stories often seemed like history, while the younger writers were reporting the news from various sub-cultures.
  • Nicole Krauss. “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker – A dancer pushes her body to the limits to stay in a touring company while becoming more and more philosophical.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. “Pity and Shame” from Tin House – I’m totally used to Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy, so it was disconcerting to read what essentially feels like a western. An abandoned woman takes in a mine inspector crushed by a tunnel collapse and nurses him back to health.
  • Manuel Munõz. “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA – A compelling tale of migrant workers, where a woman must try something new to survive. Another vivid story.
  • Sigrid Nunez. “The Plan” from Lit Mag – A disturbing story about a man driven to commit murder because it’s on his bucket list.
  • Maria Reva. “Letter of Apology” from Granta – One of the strangest stories in the collection about a communist party official who must get a letter of apology from a poet who made a politically incorrect joke. You end up feeling sorry for the oppressor.
  • Karen Russell. “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Now this is the strangest story of the collection – a horror story no less – about a doctor to the dead. Russell must be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and George Romero.
  • Saïd Sayrafiezadeh “Audition” from The New Yorker – Son of the boss secretly works construction and practices his acting skills by pretending to be one of the regular dead-end guys.
  • Alexis Schaitkin “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone – Another top favorite about a young wife from New York getting a part-time job Oklahoma when her husband had to relocate. The job she finds is writing home descriptions for a real estate agent, requiring her to visit all kinds of people and their houses.
  • Jim Shepard. “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story – An epistolary tale about the civil war. Good story but felt out of place in this collection. Of course, that’s not fair to writers who like to write historical fiction. See the comment below.
  • Mona Simpson. “Wrong Object” from Harper’s – A psychiatrist has a pedophile for a patient.
  • Jenn Alandy Trahan. “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s – Another favorite story because it’s about young Filipino girls who admire a white basketball player. Even though the story is set in the 1990s, it still feels contemporary to an old reader like me.
  • Weike Wang. “Omakase” from The New Yorker – Another vivid story of cross-culture dating. Read the interview with the author about this story.

I enjoy The Best American Short Stories anthologies most for those stories feel contemporary. I want literary fiction to be realistic portraits of what the authors have experienced. That’s very old-fashion of me and unrealistic. Roman à clef writing is not very fashionable anymore. To me, genre writing is all about creatively making things up, while literary writing is about reporting on thoughts and emotions of real people. Writers can’t always write what they have actually experienced, but they can infuse their stories with observations of themselves and others.

The stories by Berry, Shepard, and Le Guin felt totally made up. They were very creative, but still, they lacked what I’m talking about. What these writers are good at is faking what I’m talking about. The Eugenides story felt in between like he might have remembered something from the 1970s, but he’s such a good writer he could have made it up entirely.

Obviously, the stories with fantastic elements have to be made up. These stories, even though extremely well-written feel like genre stories to me. In recent years we’ve been seeing more genre included in the annual BASS collection. That’s not bad, but just not what I enjoy most in a BASS volume. Even my favorite story “Hellion” by Julia Elliott is probably all made up, but it rings true as if she lived it or saw it. It has such a wonderful collection of colorful details that I want them to have existed. Elliot knows the caliber of a BB gun – what a wonderful realistic detail.

I hope the 2020 edition of BASS is produced on audio again. Another reason I read literary fiction is to get insight into people and cultures that aren’t like me and mine. Hearing the stories read by professional readers makes those stories feel like I’m actually hearing the person talk to me in person. And that makes their stories feel even more authentic.

JWH

“A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 25, 2019

I recently read “A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence. Twice. This short story was first published in 1933 three years after Lawrence’s death but probably written in 1909, evidently a minor work. Is there anything about this story I can recommend? People read so few short stories nowadays why even mention one unless it’s a perfect 10?

I’m now reading one or two short stories a day. I admit, most of them are science fiction, but I’ve changed my time machines coordinates from the future to the past because I’ve become fascinated by the history of short stories. This once popular art form is in decline, like opera and poetry. If you ask the average person to name the ten famous short stories I doubt you’d get many answers.

“A Modern Lover” is about a young man, Cyril Mersham, who grew up in rural England coming home to see his old girlfriend, Muriel, after living in the city. I have to assume the story is inspired by Lawrence’s own experiences – Cyril is about the same age as Lawrence when he wrote the story. Cyril had been close to Muriel and her family, spending much time with them, but has slowly seen them less as work and new experiences kept him away. He had been loved by both Muriel and her family, but they were turning cold to him on his infrequent visits because they knew he would eventually stop coming.

In the story, Cyril returns realizing that Muriel was the one woman he had been able to communicate with on a deeper level. He wants to have sex with her, but not commit to marriage. She knows this. In the story, Cyril meets Muriel’s new boyfriend Tom when he comes to visit too. Cyril upstages Tom by being both generous and kind to him, pretending he is out of the picture, yet showing Muriel what she would be missing. Tom is steady, has a good job, would be a dedicated husband, a better practical choice. Cyril slyly shows Muriel how Tom would be boring.

At the end of the story after Tom leaves, Cyril tries to convince Muriel to pick him but won’t promise marriage. Muriel says no, claiming women don’t have the same freedom as men.

It would be fun to take a current issue of Cosmopolitan back in time to let Lawrence read, so he’d know what women would become. That’s the payoff of reading “A Modern Lover” – it gives us a sense of how much things have changed. There are no televisions, radios, or phones in this story. No electricity. It shows how families entertained themselves during their evenings about a century ago. “A Modern Lover” shows how far we’ve come regarding gender equality. But it also shows just how much we’re the same in communicating between the sexes.

I’m currently listening to an anthology of 19th and early 20th-century short stories. They sparkle with details of the past. We so easily forget how fast even a little time changes us. My mother’s mother was born in 1881, my mother in 1916. These short stories describe their world in ways old photographs, genealogical research, and history books can’t.

It’s a shame that short stories aren’t popular anymore. Why do we spend so many hours in comic-book fantasies? Why do we binge-watch endless contrived thrillers on Netflix? Why do we love period television shows and movies written by people with no connection to the past when we could be reading fiction written in the past by people who experienced what is being described?

JWH