Why I Love Short Stories

I love the short story form. Unlike JF Quackenbush, Flash Fiction always feels incomplete to me, like an appetizer without a main course. And I love novels, but sometimes an idea can and should be expressed compactly; indeed often the joy of the short story is seeing how the author pulls off the full expression of something in so few pages.

Like J, though, I think that most of the short fiction currently being written in literary journals is garbage. Many times I've opened up a literary journal to find one after slice-of-life story that isn't just boring, but relentlessly bleak and overly conscious of its own seriousness, miserable people writing on and on about being miserable. I think one of the reasons George Saunders has been so successful in the form is because he dares to write things that are actually funny. (I have my own reservations about Saunders, but the man is undeniably humorous and his stories are fun to read.) Which is why most of my short story reading these days is devoted to collections by authors I already know, anthologies edited by people I've heard of, or a handful of higher-quality magazines I read from time to time (if none of them religiously). All of the magazines, though, often suffer from J's complaint, full of the amateurish scribblings of people who don't really care about the form, who only care about breaking in, or getting an agent, or getting into grad school. That is to say, J isn't wrong, exactly, but he just hasn't looked closely enough to see the whole picture.

And what I've discovered from reading lots and lots of short stories, is that there is a distinct cadre of people doing work I find really interesting in the form, a cadre that mostly shows up in the same sorts of anthologies. Their names include Kelly Link, first and foremost, Jeffrey Ford, Brian Evenson, Austin Bunn, Jeff VanderMeer, Matt Cheney and Elizabeth Hand. (Throw in Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender and Jonathan Lethem, who are sort of like special guests to this group, and few people like the amazing Jim Shephard, who usually appear in other venues entirely.) These, I suppose, are the type of people J "is not talking about" when he complains about short stories, but then why write "I hate short stories" instead of "I hate short stories by amateurish hacks with no real love of the form" (which is, I admit, a bit wordier).

To be fair, J's feelings about short stories are similar to my feelings about poetry. While there are poets that I like, I have no where near the patience he has for poems or desire to read them. I've even complained that contemporary poetry is all too often a) incomprehensible, b) wearyingly pointless minutia or c) railing against "the man". And there are certainly plenty of people in the poetry magazines trying to get or keep professorships, since it's even more impossible to make a living as a poet than as a short story writer. But, of course, J will tell me there are lots of poets I'm dismissing and hold up Ted Berrigan the way I hold up Kelly Link. Which is to say there's more going on if you're willing to pay attention. In fact, one of the reasons we founded this site was to point people to the things we think they should be paying attention to.