3/1/14 – GUEST BLOGGER BARBARA WESTWOOD DIEHL ON THE SHORT STORY’S ENDURING APPEAL
Yes, I complain about the volume of submissions. (502 in the last 22 days, and 256 of those are short stories.) I complain about the time away from my own writing. I complain about all the administrative tasks of running a literary journal—I won’t put you to sleep with that laundry list—but all those tasks have nothing to do with the intoxicating work of reading hundreds of short stories each submission period. Yes, all of them, not only the stories that we finally publish. I’m humbled , stunned really, to have all those stories entrusted to me.
And I do mean intoxicating. Not some milquetoast word like “rewarding,” which is often used in a letter of resignation. Nope. Intoxicating. After a few rounds of fiction, from keggers of long fiction to shots of flash fiction, I start to feel hammered, sloshed, wrecked, tipsy, trashed, disorderly, snockered, giddy, and sometimes—if I’m lucky—euphoric.
So many characters belly up to the bar, each with a short story to tell, each short story with its particular taste and potency . And I get to hook my feet around the barstool, crack open peanuts, and listen. I get to run up a tab like you wouldn’t believe. How lucky is that?
When Alice Munro was interviewed after winning the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, she expressed a hope that the prize would bring new readership to the short story in general, as well as to her own work: “Because it’s often sort of brushed off, you know, as something that people do before they write their first novel. And I would like it to come to the fore, without any strings attached, so that there doesn’t have to be a novel.”
The short story may have gone through a period of being brushed off, at least taken a drastic cut in pay since the days when the Saturday Evening Post paid F. Scott Fitzgerald $4,000 per story, but it’s always managed to dust itself off and get back up again. I don’t think the compelling need to write and read short stories has ever gone away. The Best American Short Stories series has been going strong since 1915; the O’Henry Prize Stories series began not long after that. Many other anthologies have been published since then, as well as a growing number of short story collections.
There doesn’t have to be a novel.
I think there are a lot of people out there, like me, who are just as happy to have plenty of books of short stories to dip into now and then. The satisfaction of the story arc, the glimpse into the human condition, a good laugh, a half hour in another country—without the investment of time and attention needed for a novel. When I read a novel, it’s hard to tear myself away from it, and then it’s hard to orient myself again if I’ve spent too much time away. Not that I don’t love novels—I do—they’re just, well, different. A different commitment. A different art form. Sometimes I want to listen to a symphony. Sometimes I want three minutes of rock ‘n roll. Another Alice Munro quote, from a 1986 article in The New York Times: “There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”
As a reader, I’m often looking for that gathering of a story into an explosive moment. And I want that experience compressed in time.
When I last checked with NewPages.com, they told me that they list well over 1,000 literary journals on their website, and I know that a large percentage of them publish short stories. Also, a number of their contest announcements have that little [book] or [chap] note after them—opportunities for writers to have their collections published and usually win some prize money, as well as for publishers to generate (sometimes) some much-needed revenue.
These prize-winning collections are often incredibly good reading, and you can buy them directly from the publishers. Look for them. I love to buy signed copies from writers I respect. I treasure those books.
The growing print-on-demand trend has resulted in a better business model for many journals (no more boxes of unsold copies in the basement). And the online journal, once snubbed, has gained considerable respectability, allowing the still-loved short story (did we ever not love it?) access into any home with Internet access. Heck, you can read stories on your iPhone while stuck in a traffic jam. Yes, pre-Internet, you could always find a literary journal or two, or at least a magazine that included a short story, in the public library—but a soberingly small number. So many voices can be heard now at little or no cost. Also, for writers, the ease of online submission systems such as Submittable means not having to cough up postage money, which has climbed considerably since the days we sealed our 16-page stories and SASEs in 9X12 envelopes and took them to the post office. Of course, the proliferation of journals and all that wonderful free access may have some unforeseen and unintended consequences—but that’s another topic.
As long as I am a journal editor, I will continue to over-imbibe (is that possible?) short stories, and I encourage readers to try a large number of journals through sources like NewPages.com and pw.org and find stories to suit your own discriminating taste. Find writers you love, read them on your iPads, buy the anthologies that include them, and buy their first and subsequent collections. Buy them a drink.