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FPP#17: A Lasting and Even Unshakable Impression

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.

In Aimee Bender's first collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a narrator remarks:

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.

I first encountered the Dybek story years ago, and it sent me straight to the bookstore for more of his work. The same thing happened when I read James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues."

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?

[Turn back to last time's First Paragraph Preview, or skip straight to its author and title.]

Update: Find the author and title.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Coast of Chicago Used Trade Paper $8.00
  2. Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories... New Trade Paper $22.05
  3. The Lottery: And Other Stories
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  4. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. The Brothers K
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  6. Underworld
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  7. Going to Meet the Man: Stories Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. Grab on to Me Tightly as If I Knew...
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  9. Best New American Voices 2006: Fresh... New Trade Paper $18.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

5 Responses to "FPP#17: A Lasting and Even Unshakable Impression"

    Karen P. May 30th, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    The three I'm remembering tonight:
    "The Prophet from Jupiter" by Tony Early
    "How I Came West, and Why I Stayed" by Alison Baker
    "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen

    KyleRanger May 30th, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    Karen - I loved that Tony Earley story. And another called "Charlotte" from the same collection.

    But my three:
    "A&P" by John Updike (has stayed with me)
    "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick (took my breath away)
    "Bohemians" by George Saunders (the most recent)

    Alexis May 31st, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    Henry James's "The Aspern Papers"

    Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People"

    The third novella in Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider"

    Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat" gives me shivers just thinking about it

    Salami May 31st, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    I almost didn't post when I saw that Alexis chose Flannery O'Connor, who deserves a place on any list of the most powerful/memorable short stories. But okay, O'Connor has made the cut. Who else?

    Mary Gaitskill - "The Girl on the Plane"

    Tim O'Brien - "The Things They Carried"

    and the story that completely killed me when i was a kid...
    Ray Bradbury - "There Will Come Soft Rains"

    drella June 2nd, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    The Yellow Walpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gillman

    Honey Pie, (really most everything in After the Quake) - Haruki Marukami

    ditto re: Kelly Link

    Harrison Bergeron - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

    In the Penal Colony - Kafka

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