From the introduction to an anthology of short fiction published earlier this year (but discovered by yours truly only on Friday):
I never write short stories, and as a reader I find them a little scary. A good short story has to take the reader over for a half hour or so, imposing its own mood, sensibility, and events with enough intensity to make a lasting and even unshakable impression. There are, of course, stories I love, such as Stuart Dybek's "The Death of the Outfielder," but there are also stories I love but hate to think about, like Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill," in which a genteelly impoverished lady of a certain age goes to a concert dressed in a way she thinks is flattering, and overhears remarks that, the reader knows, must permanently disabuse her of her self-respect, or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which I read in high school and which may have been my first real exposure to plausible evil.
Let's be honest: not all stories are created equal. Open any literary quarterly or new collection and you're bound to find some of the contents wanting. Be it an anthology or the work of a single author, a book of short stories without a dud or two (or more) is as rare as an album with no tracks you want to skip. They exist, but you always feel somewhat blessed to find one. Sometimes fault can be traced directly to the author's desk, but just as likely the voice simply isn't to your taste or the subject matter doesn't suit your mood. For these reasons and plenty of others, more often than not, the typical short story fails to take root in a reader's imagination.
Surely a vast proportion of stories you have read ceased to exist in your mind within thirty seconds of reaching the last word. You've probably seen bumper stickers that resonated longer. Oh, to have a bit of that time spent reading back, to socialize, to enjoy the outdoors, or to read... something else. Because if you rummage persistently enough through the aisles, occasionally a door opens, wardrobe-like, on the landscape of another human mind.
I can't tell you exactly what I'm looking for, but I'll know it when it happens. I want to be breathless and weak, crumpled by the entrance of another person inside my soul. I want to be violated by insight.
Is this woman talking about love or reading? Love, definitely. She is about to tail a stranger from the city bus to his apartment, where she will let herself in and join him, provocatively, in the living room. She is practically aching for a brand of violation that bibliophiles will recognize immediately, but she prefers the carnal variety.
Great novels open doors too, but three- and four-hundred-page manuscripts offer innumerable advantages to an author, most of them stemming from the reader's long-term commitment. Digressions will be tolerated, pacing may falter, readers might for several chapters mow down line after line in a desperate race for the end, but nonetheless a novel lays claim to its audience's attention for days and even weeks at a time. A short story, on the other hand, has maybe twenty minutes to burn through the calloused shell of your life, pull you out of your pitiful existence, and screw fundamentally with your emotions — good luck. Which is why stumbling upon a transcendent story, two or twelve or twenty-five pages, can knock you off balance a little like falling headlong in love.
The Stuart Dybek story referenced above — its correct title is "Death of the Right Fielder," and you can find it in The Coast of Chicago. As genres go, baseball fiction is overpopulated. Why read when you can catch a live game, instead? — or so I type, while a Red Sox game plays on Internet radio in the background. But too much ballpark lit tends toward the literal or nostalgic, and made-up stats don't matter. Fictional sports narratives rarely assume the weight a fan will otherwise gladly attach to any contest including a team he's been rooting for since grade school. Exceptions, naturally, abound: The Brothers K and the opening section of Underworld, to name two. And get this for an opening paragraph. "Death of the Right Fielder" begins:
After too many balls went out and never came back we went out to check. It was a long walk — he always played deep. Finally we saw him, from the distance resembling the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.
How about you? What stories have transported you or stuck with you over time? What are you looking for in a story, anyway, and how often do you find it?
Update: Find the author and title.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State