In Praise of the American Short Story

Last year, in an article for the New York Times lamenting the lack of appreciation many American readers have for the short story, Stephen Millhauser said, “…here in America, size is power. The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature. The novel is insatiable — it wants to devour the world. What’s left for the poor short story to do? It can cultivate its garden, practice meditation, water the geraniums in the window box. It can take a course in creative nonfiction. It can do whatever it likes, so long as it doesn’t forget its place — so long as it keeps quiet and stays out of the way. ‘Hoo ha!’ cries the novel. ‘Here ah come!’ The short story is always ducking for cover. The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence.” And I think it’s this squeezing under the fence bit that best sums up the quiet power of a really well-written short story–the best ones are able to sneak up on you, offer an emotional wallop, and are able to do so in the same small amount of time it would take you to watch a re-run of “Saved By the Bell.” These days, it seems that any writer showing up on an agent’s and editor’s doorstep, polished short story collection in hand, is met with pity. “Where’s the novel?” The agent will ask. “I can’t sell these!” The editor will wail. If this writer is lucky she’ll get a two-book deal, which involves a publishing house accepting her short story collection only along with a novel. And the novel will probably make its way to print, and eventually to the bookshelves of Borders. And the short story collection? No matter how craftily written, this poor manuscript will forever remain in “editing,” until the publisher releases the collection from contract (with pitying looks for the poor writer who has wasted everyone’s time). This seems to be a recent development, and it makes one wonder if a writer like, say, Raymond Carver (a writer known for brevity whose longest works are in the 12-page range) would even have a shot today in the publishing world. And there’s Cheever and Barth, both writers who are best known for their short stories. I think proof of this bias can be seen with Lorrie Moore (immediately buy Birds of America if it’s not already on your shelf), a master of the short story form, who, it seems, is forced to put out the occasional sub par novel (the problematic Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was originally a much-loved short story in The New Yorker called “Paris.”)

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the place of the short story in the American reading landscape. Publishers don’t want them because, well, they don’t sell. But there’s something beautiful in the way a short story invites you briefly into a world, lets you glimpse the grace of this world’s inhabitants (or perhaps the horror of their lives), and then releases you before you have a chance to even sit down and take your coat off.

Here’s a brief list of just a few of the stories that–no matter how many times I re-read them–punch me in the gut (almost all of these are contemporary, but since she’s my favorite short story writer, I had to slip in one by O’Connor):

“Hunters In the Snow” by Tobias Wolff. Not many writers can get away with a story that relies almost completely on dialogue and action (no exposition here, my friend). This story is chilling, and the ending is downright frightening.

“People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore. This story has the perfect narrative voice. It’s like one of your best friends is telling you about a really, really bad experience while you share a glass of wine with her. It’s heartbreaking.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. I know most Flannery-ites don’t think it’s her best, but I get chills every time the Misfit shows up. And, like Wolff’s story, the ending is tough.

“City of Boys” by Beth Nugent. The protagonist of this story is wise and smart and sad and hopeful all at the same time. And there’s that chilling refrain that occurs throughout the story, gaining menace as the narrative progresses (“rent control is not going to last forever in New York!”)

“Gryphon” by Charles Baxter. It’s difficult for me to bond with child narrators. But I find this story charming. Plus, it was made into a film by PBS.

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. The scene where the protagonist traces the cathedral with the Blind Man is gorgeous.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. Uh-oh, I’m starting to see a trend in my favorite stories (it seems I like the ones with the creepy predators).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. Those are just a few of mine. What are yours?

-Laura Kopchick


  1. Oh Laura, you have no idea the box you’ve opened here:

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” “There Are No Thieves in this Town,” “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother” I’m assuming we’re allowed to have non-US authors on here. Even if we’re not, you can’t omit Garcia Marquez.

    Jorge Luis Borges: “The Gospel of Mark,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “The Library of Babel.” I may have those titles wrong.

    Stephen King: “Dolan’s Cadillac” and “Crouch End”

    Flannery O’Connor: “Revelation”

    Dan Chaon: “Safety Man.” I heard this story on Selected Shorts once and it filled me with a kind of existential dread that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced with any other text. Is that a recommendation, or just a really troubling sign?
    That’s all I can think of right now, but this is a good start.

  2. I definitely second “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

    From Tobias Wolff, I really, truly love “Bullet in the Brain.” It’s one of my favorite short stories ever.

    Otherwise, I read a lot of science fiction (which is also a genre where short stories still seem to have a market). Some favorites: Gregory Benford’s “Exposures,” Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” Robert Silverberg’s “Sundance,” and Michael Swanwick’s “Triceratops Summer.”

    Oh! And even though I’m normally not a huge Hemingway fan, I really love reading and teaching “The Short Happy life of Francis Macomber.”

  3. What? No Alice Munro? She deserves a mention as one of the few authors today who apparently *can* sell a volume of short stories. Plus, she’s awesome.

    And, I second Thomas’ addition of Garcia Marquez: his book of stories, Strange Pilgrims, is probably my favorite of the genre.

  4. I was trying to stick to American writers…but Munro and Garcia Marquez are definitely on my list of favorite short story writers (and how does Munro do it? The stories don’t really have plots! They’re like really long, awesome character sketches, heavy on setting details. Plot is an afterthought (and not at all missed).

  5. Penelope Fitzgerald’s “At Hiruharama” and “Desideratus,” Malachi Whitaker’s “Landlord of the Crystal Fountain,” Bryan MacMahon, “The Ring,” Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” Alan Sillitoe’s “Enoch’s Two Letters,” Haruki Murakami’s “The Elephant Vanishes” and “The Second Bakery Attack.” Several of those are from AS Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories, which is wonderful. Of the American classics, Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Wakefield.” From Europe, Italo Calvino’s “Il bosco degli animali.”

    “Bullet in the Brain,” yes, a great story.

  6. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and “The Lovely House,” Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” and his collection _The October Country_, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” are a few American favorites.

    Contemporary short fiction immediately calls to mind the brilliant Neil Gaiman (English, but an American resident) and his _Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders_.

  7. I am tempted to list each short story that I taught last semester in American literature.

    I keep up by reading _The Best American Short Stories_. I wait until they have filtered into 1/2 Price Books and then collect the series (along with the BA Poetry and BA Essay). Each year a different guest editor gives a state of the art introduction, which is a great way to keep up with the literary history of the genre. The stories are culled from various contemporary literary journals published within the year.

    I by no means read all of the stories in the collections; I review the TOC and read the stories of the titles that most capture me. It’s fun, too, to go through and read all of the opening sentences.

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