“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.” — George Saunders
Over the past several years, my reading life has consisted nearly exclusively of gobbling up short stories, those unpopular little things that everyone reads once in high school — “A Rose for Emily,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Araby” — and then happily moves on to novels.
My own experience with short stories had always left me feeling somewhat bereft, particularly if I was reading a book of them. Why, after all, get invested in characters and settings and plots if the story was just going to end in 10 pages? And why did everything have to feel so weighty in them, every noun invested with symbolic meaning, every piece of dialogue tinged with acerbity?
But, if my fiction career was going to gain any traction, I was going to have to get busy not only studying short stories, but writing them, since they would be my ticket to developing a fiction repertoire. Essentially, if agents and publishers see that you’ve been published already, they’ll be willing to help you get published more.
Around the same time as I made this realization, Mrs. Julie Harris gave me what has become one of the best gifts I’ve ever received: a subscription to The New Yorker. It’s a wonderful magazine that includes book, art, and movie reviews, lengthy articles on everything from Antarctic exploration to Donald Trump, and, every issue, one short story. Since every writer in the world would be honored to have their work included in this prestigious magazine, that meant I had the cream of the crop of short stories at my disposal.
So, I started reading. And I’ll tell you, it took me about once to realize how much I’d been missing out on. A good short story is something that, a), can absolutely knock your socks off with beauty and complexity and humor and insight, but, b), does all of that in the space of half an hour. Not only that, the ones I was reading weren’t “grand examples of great literature.” They were feisty and funny and brilliant and, bless it, current.
This month, I will have my fifth short story published in a literary magazine, an accomplishment I’m reasonably proud of. What makes me more proud is that for each story I get published, I read about 50 short stories so that, in turn, I’ve amassed a great collection of favorites.
And, as such, I have some recommendations for you.
First off, the short stories that are published in The New Yorker are absolutely free online. You’ll likely run up against a pop-up limiting how many you can read at once, but you’ll at least get to access some greats. They’re laid out with a pleasant font and you can even print them out if you want.
As for ones I absolutely loved? Search for: “The Prairie Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld; “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates; “Likes” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum; “The Lazy River” by Zadie Smith; “Signal” by John Lanchester; “Member / Guest” by David Gilbert; “The Night of the Satellite” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, and “This is an Alert” by Thomas Pierce.
Second stop: Alice Munro. If you haven’t heard of her, I am actually jealous because so much beauty awaits you. She and Alice McDermott are my favorite living writers, and I regularly try to write as if “the Alices,” as I call them, are reading over my shoulder. Munro, who almost exclusively writes short stories, is the first Canadian woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. That’s great news, but don’t let the prize intimidate you. Just buy one of her books and you’ll see how accessible and impossibly precise she is.
Third stop: “Best American Short Stories of 2017.” Or 2016. Or ’15. All the way back to 1915, actually, though with major changes along the way. Anyway, the book’s editor (different every year — and always a prestigious writer in his/her own right) selects the best stories that have been published in any of the literary magazines in the U.S. That’s a lot of magazines and, hence, a lot of stories. If you make one purchase of a collection of short stories, I can tell you that this is it. The stories are mind-blowingly good.
Tessa Hadley and Ann Beattie are two short-story writers I particularly like and also recommend. I’m reading Eudora Welty now and her work is difficult, but wonderful. But as for my all-time favorite short story? It’s “The Swimmer” by John Cheever that I, yes, was first introduced to in my first-year English class in university. If you want a story that will keep you thinking for weeks, this is it.
So I hope I’ve convinced you to try out a new genre of fiction (assuming you don’t already love it). Especially as we’re getting into summer with its beaches and pools, it’s the perfect time of year to read. I promise you, you will never look back.