The Short-But-Sweet Short Story

By Carole Reedy

When asked about short stories, many lovers of novels, biographies, and history find themselves expressing indifference or dissatisfaction for the genre. “I don’t read short stories” or “I don’t care for them” are not unusual responses.

Most recently Alice Munro, the empress of the short story, won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, evoking mixed reactions from those who thought a writer of the longer, more complete form should have been awarded this sought-after recognition.

Those of us who love novels must remind ourselves that the two genres are entirely different, and that we can appreciate each for what it has to offer. The short story writer, who doesn’t have the novelist’s luxury of length, is ever mindful that he/she needs to compress plot and characterization into fewer pages. As in poetry, every word counts. The skill lies in economics–in the narrative and emotions related in a few pages with precisely the right words and structure.

Some popular and famous novelists also have a talent for the short-story genre. Here are a few prominent short-story writers, new and old favorites alike, who are sure to convert if you give them the chance.

CONTEMPORARY WRITERS

Jhumpa Lahiri has achieved perfection in both the novels and short stories she’s written in the 21st century. These reflect the struggles of immigrants and family–specifically of her own Indian heritage. Her publishing debut, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 as well as the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Unaccustomed Earth is her excellent second collection of short stories, and it doesn’t disappoint the way many successful first-time winners’ follow-ups do.

Lahiri has written two outstanding novels. The Namesake (made into a successful movie in 2007) was a New York Times Notable Book. The Lowlands is her most recent novel, set in India and the US. Written in her mesmerizing style, it takes place during an interesting part of Indian history in the 1960s. Lahiri lives in New York City.

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature this year, eking past Haruki Murakami, considered the favorite for the precious award. Some readers describe Munro’s stories as depressing, but they love her style. Her stories, while reflecting larger life issues, concern themselves with small-town Canadian life.

Joyce Carol Oates is prolific, having written more than 40 novels and many collections of short stories. Her terse style lends itself nicely to the short story. Over the years she’s written in a variety of styles, themes, and genres, including essays, children’s books, gothic novels, stream of consciousness, personal, and familiar, many of which we’ve discussed in this column over the past three years.

T.C. Boyle has written several fine collections of short stories as well as an impressive variety of novels. He first came to the spotlight in 1997 with the brilliant Tortilla Curtain, a novel about the clash of cultures in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles. T. C. Boyle Stories II, published in 2013, is his 24th book of fiction and his tenth collection of short stories.

Boyle is a marvelous storyteller, whether writing in the novel or short story form. Proof of his talent and popularity is reflected in the successful and frequent publication of his stories in distinguished publications, as well as in the awards bestowed on him. His short stories have appeared in most significant American magazines including The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus, Granta, and McSweeney’s. His awards include the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year (World’s End, 1988); the PEN/Malamud Prize in the short story (T.C. Boyle Stories, 1999); and the Prix Médicis Étranger for best foreign novel in France (The Tortilla Curtain, 1997).

THE MASTERS

Many students in the US read these writers in school, and for some of us they were (and remain) the inspiration to pursue literature as a profession and/or leisure activity. Their stories are often a peak into life’s mysteries.

  1. Henry (1862-1910) wrote some of the most delightful stories you will ever read, most with witty narrative and a twist at the end (The Ransom of Red Chief and The Gift of the Magi). We read these stories as teenagers, and as with Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant (The Necklace is a must-read short story) we remember to this day those few brief pages that brought us such joy and surprise.
  2. Henry is a pen name for William Sidney (he changed the spelling to Sydney when he was 36) Porter. Here is the reasoning behind the pen name straight from the author’s mouth:

It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: “I’m going to send out some stuff. I don’t know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one.” He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. “Here we have our notables,” said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, “That’ll do for a last name,” said I. “Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.” “Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?” asked my friend. “Good,” said I, “O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.” A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, “O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver.” And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry. (Source: New York Times, 1909)

It was O. Henry in his Cabbages and Kings who first coined the term “banana republic” to describe a poor Latin American country dependent on agriculture for its economy, while in exile in Honduras after being charged with embezzlement in the US. Many of his fans awaited a posthumous pardon for him. He was an amazing man, admired worldwide.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was one of the first short story writers, and 200 years later he’s still remembered for his tales of the macabre and considered the inventor of today’s popular detective fiction.. He was also one of the first writers to actually make a living, albeit a paltry one, from his art. The cause of his death at 40 remains a mystery, in accordance with the themes of his works. Any used bookstore or your Kindle will have selections of his stories. As we age, we may forget some things, but plots of The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Gold Bug likely remain fixed in our minds. Poe has influenced numerous writers, as well as cryptologists, over the years.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) Parker’s razor-sharp wit and sarcasm brought many of us to the realization that women could be funny too, though her humor is often bittersweet, a reflection on her unhappy childhood and turbulent adulthood. Her short stories (The Portable Dorothy Parker) and poems, some of the most poignant writing of the 20th century, appeared regularly in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Republic. Successful in her craft in many mediums, including Hollywood, she also wrote plays, book reviews, and screenplays, a truly versatile contributor to the literature of our time.

READING IN SPANISH

Teachers of the language agree that it is important for those trying to learn Spanish to read and write daily. The short story is the perfect medium for this exercise as the literary style is very different from the journalism of newspapers, the casual nature of the spoken word, and the factual writing of texts. The Spanish language is blessed with many excellent short-story writers, the most famous being Mexican Jose Emilio Pacheco (try his Batallas en el Desierto y otros cuentos) and Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, who has two huge volumes of short stories available at a reasonable price in Gandi bookstores. Columbian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novellas (long short stories!) will also help improve your Spanish skills. And, Spaniard Javier Marias publishes short stories that are as metaphysical as his novels.

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