Once upon a time, I played the oboe in the high school orchestra. I loved its soulful sound, the way its voice could stand out from the other instruments. How it could be poignant, mysterious, haunting. Today as a writer, I feel the short story has the same capabilities. With its distinctive voice and unique identity, it has an important place in the literary ensemble, with the ability to stand out.
The short story “stood out” to me during 7th grade English class as I listened to the teacher read The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death. (See my “Writing” page.) The mood, stories, and characters of Edgar Allan Poe captured me as the restless students stilled and the classroom became quiet, like one of Poe’s tombs. All with the power of a short story.
Just as a poem has fewer lines and fewer words to achieve the Aha! moment, so too is the challenge of a short story. The writer has to pull the reader quickly into a character’s mind, actions, and dilemma; into the setting, mood, structure. Words have to be chosen carefully and sentences juxtaposed with skill and economy to keep the story resonating after the closing sentence is read.
Some say short stories don’t do well in the marketplace. With today’s pace and so many different kinds of media competing for our attention, the fact that a short story is short, read perhaps in an hour or less, may be its best asset. As I heard at a recent writers’ conference, it’s up to us as writers of short stories to “Go where the reader goes.” Just where is the reader of the short story?
Readers are in waiting rooms, leafing through animal magazines such as I Love Cats at the veterinarian’s office or The New Yorker at the doctor’s office. A reader has just connected with the source of a short story. Writers may want to take inventory of magazines found in waiting rooms and investigate what’s on the newsstand at Barnes & Noble. These are the commercial magazines in print that people are thumbing through, buying, subscribing to, and reading.
In addition to reading commercial magazines, readers explore literary journals published by independent and university-linked presses like Zoetrope: All Story or Crazyhorse or Ploughshares. Readers also may delve into short story collections by individual authors or into anthologies like The Pushcart Prize, featuring the best of the small presses. Movie and television personnel discover material in these publications. Such was the case with Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx published in The New Yorker, and Million Dollar Baby, adapted from Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by F. X. Toole.
However, print magazines are becoming fewer due to today’s online technology, and literary journals are published only a few times a year. Where have many readers gone? To their computers and e-readers. To their smartphones and iPads, which are always with them. They click onto websites, ezines, and blog sites or purchase a single short story or an entire anthology. Readers are there, ready to be transported to the world of the short story. It’s up to us as writers to find them and create a product that’s the best it can be.
Oprah chose a collection of short stories for her book club in 2009 with the selection Say You’re One of Them by Nigerian author Uwem Akpan. Thirteen interconnected short stories entitled Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. (See my “Books” page.) The old adage about cream rising. Writer Dan Weckett of the Emerging Writers Network has declared May as Short Story Month.
Just as the oboe soloist wants to be heard, we, as writers, want the short story to be read. We need to keep submitting to the print magazine, the literary journal, the contest, and the ezine. We need to be media savvy and place our stories on the technological devices used by readers.
We need to keep writing and keep growing with the times and reboot.
(To learn more, click on the underlined links.)