It is Short Story Month and we will all be paying lip service to that fact. There will be screeds bemoaning how collections are ignored by popular readers, celebrations of online publishers revitalizing the form and loud whispers about traditional publishers abandoning collections in favour of novels again and again. Each year it seems to be a perpetual underdog story and the narrative rarely changes. Everyone is very eager to play the role of the diamond in the rough.
Anyone with a creative writing class under their belt has a story sitting on a hard drive somewhere, waiting in a drawer, hoping it will be discovered, lauded and held up in the sun. Many of these stories will be under three thousand words and end with someone waiting, with dawn arriving, with eyes opening to an epiphany, a new self-discovery, a horrible secret.
This is something we can guarantee.
During this month, it is easy to list off the stories you once enjoyed, to stick with whatever canon you’ve chosen to protect yourself. I too enjoyed “The Lottery.” The safe bets are always the same books—Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro and George Saunders ain’t going anywhere. It’s easy to talk about their genius, to point to Denis Johnson or Shirley Jackson and say “This is so important. This is why it matters.”
It is always easy to talk.
It is easy to take the stance that most contemporary literature is terrible—it will never be your own work that is terrible, of course. We are all the exception to this harsh truth. Remaining outside the conversation means nothing is at stake, means that next year we can all bemoan the fact no one takes the form seriously anymore once again. It reaffirms our self-fulfilling prophecy.
Optimism is difficult in the face of constant submission and rejection. It is often easier to believe in the narrative that no one reads short story collections than to actually read them yourself. Recent, contemporary collections, I mean. The work of your peers all flailing around in the struggle. When asking why no one reads short story collections anymore, it might be useful to ask how many you have read or purchased on your own. How many you’ve given as gifts, how many you’ve reviewed and passed along to your friends. You may be found wanting, but this can be remedied. Stephen W. Beattie’s 31 Days of Stories might be a good place to start. Recent collections by Amber Sparks, Brian Allen Carr, Chad Simpson, Nancy Jo Cullen and John Vigna wouldn’t hurt either. We all need to participate, to actually read the work we believe has been ignored and diminished.
Talking about the woes of the short story is not really enough. Tuscaloosa-based writer Brian Oliu says it best:
When it comes to the short story, the same advice applies. Please listen to Usher.