I’m always consistently shocked when someone tells me they don’t like short stories. I know that doesn’t sound like a conversation that can come up a lot. I sound like some NASA douche at a party half-drunk on wine coolers and slurring at a friend of a friend’s neighbor I’ve managed to pin to the corner, ‘You don’t have a favorite red supergiant? What are you even doing with your life?’
But I’ve been that girl who likes reading and writing since I was a kid. And sometimes people ask me for book recommendations. And sometimes I recommend short story collections. And then mostly people look at me like I told them to grab some Chaucer in its original Middle English.
College writing classes are pretty much all short stories for obvious reasons. No one has time to read and critique a NaNoWriMo project every week unless they’re getting paid for it. Every single one of those classes seemed to start with a majority of the students – again, English creative writing students – saying they weren’t a fan of reading short stories and thought that writing them meant taking time away from their ‘real work.’
We’ll talk about why writers should be writing short stories next time, but for now let’s focus on reading short stories and why it’s great.
‘Short Story’ Isn’t a Genre
The aforementioned shock I get when people flatly tell me they don’t read short stories stems from this idea. The way people say it is the same way people say, ‘I don’t listen to country music,’ or ‘I can’t watch horror movies.’ Like all short stories have the same types of characters, plots, and tones. Once you’ve read one, you know what all the others are going to do.
Obviously untrue, or I wouldn’t be so shocked all the time. Short story isn’t a genre, it’s a format. They’re the 45s of literature. The anthology TV show of literature. The Vines of literature. Do the kids remember Vines, or is it all about the TikToks now? Okay, book stans, they’re the TikToks of literature, and that’s the tea I’ve spilled.
Man, I’d be a great middle school teacher.
Short stories can be about anything, and in any genre. They can be simple or they can be experimental. One short story might be a scene of people talking at a diner, and another might span generations on a space adventure. Short stories are as varied as the rest of literature because they’re little snapshots of different genres, not their own thing.
Great for Beach Reads
This specific conversation is the one I’ve had probably half a dozen times:
Them: I’m going on a vacation and I want something to read on the plane or when we’re sitting around. You know, something short and light that I can finish by the end of the week. Me: Oh, you should find a short story collection! Them: A what now. Me: Yeah, they’re exactly what you’re looking for! They’re all short, and because they’re not connected you can read one or two when you have time and not have to worry about remembering what happened when you come back to it. Them: I have never heard of this concept before in my entire life and will be leaving this conversation now to go stand in a corner by myself, which is something I’d rather do than talk to you at this point. Me (calling after them): Have you heard Betelgeuse might go supernova in our lifetime?
Sometimes people don’t want to read short stories because they’re looking for something longer and more involved Something they can really get absorbed in. And that’s totally valid. But when people come up to me asking for a book recommendation, and the guidelines they give me are literally descriptors of short story collections, and they still turn up their nose, I begin to get the feeling that they’re just rejecting short stories as a concept.
So the next time you feel comfortable traveling, which at this rate might not be until the sun explodes, look into a short story collection. Specifically one with soft pages so you’ll be comfortable when you fall asleep with it on your face.
Great for Busy Schedules
For pretty much the same reason they’re great for vacations, short stories are great for people who want to get into reading but are currently stuck in that late-capitalism grind where you are expected to somehow monetize every little piece of you and even when you do it’s still not enough to afford rent without roommates or take the kids on a vacation that isn’t just camping out in the backyard. Finally find yourself with half an hour? Read a short story! The next time you find half an hour to read isn’t for over a month? Who cares! It’s not like you were reading a full novel and have to remember what the hell was going on the last time you were able to crack the casing. They’re entirely separate stories!
I mean, it does fully suck that it takes you literal weeks to find time to sit down and read something, and I really hope that’s because your schedule is full of other fun stuff that you do with friends and family or by yourself and not because you have to work all the time.
Great for Trying Something New
Let’s say there’s an author you’ve been wanting to try, but all of their books are around a thousand pages long and you’ve been burned before.
Maybe you want to get into a new genre, but you’re not sure where to start and you’re not even confident you’re going to like it.
Maybe you want to see what new authors are out there, and get a little bit from every one.
Short story collections! Every time, short story collections!
Like I said, short stories aren’t their own genre. They come in every single one, even down to some niche stuff like solarpunk. Any genre you feel like getting into I guarantee a good collection of stories is only an internet search away.
Many famous authors write short stories, especially early in their career as a way to break out. If you want to find out if you’ll like an author’s style before taking the plunge into a full length novel, you’ll most likely find either a collection or at least one or two stories that had been previously published in magazines, journals, or genre collections. Sometimes these authors try out concepts in short stories that will eventually become one of their longer works, and it’s like having insider knowledge.
Great for Horror
Writing full length horror novels or movies can be a tricky thing. I think the reason horror movies and literature are so often associated with schlock is because it’s so hard to get it right. If you get even a little thing wrong – the tone, the pacing, the scares – you can quickly veer off that tightrope and end up with something that doesn’t work. More often than not, when horror doesn’t work it comes off as goofy and can quickly break any tension that’s been built.
Here’s what happens a lot: the movie or book or whatever starts off with a scary thing, and that thing is scary because we know next to nothing about it. But it’s supposed to be a complete story, and we’ve been conditioned to expect things from complete stories. Like answers. So, the movie or book starts filling in backstory or explanations for the scary thing as it works toward a resolution. By the end you know everything about the scary thing, and it’s just not scary anymore. Or, the writer held back details to keep it scary but now you’re pissed because you don’t have all the answers (paging Cloverfield, Cloverfield please pick up the red courtesy phone).
The great thing about short stories is that they aren’t expected to be a full fledged story. Sure, some are, there’s great variety. But short stories can get away with being incomplete. They can thrust the reader into a situation with absolutely no set-up and then end whenever they want, without having to explain everything that just happened.
For this reason, horror short stories are some of the best examples of the genre out there.
The author doesn’t have to ruin the scary thing by explaining where the scary thing came from and how to stop it. Hell, the protagonists of the book don’t even have to stop it! This isn’t a traditional story with a hero’s journey and a climax and a dénouement. This is a short story, and anything goes. It’s sort of like some of those episodes of The Twilight Zone where some fucked up shit would happen and there was no relatable lesson and then the credits rolled. Like the one where there’s a bunch of strangers trapped in a room with no escape except it turns out that they’re all donated dolls in a bin at Christmas? Who the fuck wrote that one?
Stephen King is absolutely great at this, and it’s probably related to his most famous criticism about not being able to write an ending. Well, fucking guess what? With short stories, he doesn’t have to end that shit! He can just scare the bejeepers out of you and then move on with his day. Here’s a short list of Stephen King short story concepts, none of which I’m making up:
- There’s a finger coming out of the bathroom sink.
- An oil slick is slowly killing teenagers stuck on a raft.
- An astronaut comes down with a bad case of Eyes.
- Evil sand planet.
- Evil shortcuts.
None of these things are ever explained. Shit is fucked up for about 10,000 words and then he walks away with no answers to leave you pissing yourself.
I generally don’t get scared by books, not the way I do from movies. I think having to read and imagine it myself pulls me away enough that I find horror literature entertaining and interesting but not actually scary. Except after I read “The Jaunt” from King’s collection The Skeleton Crew I had to put the book away and go outside for a while. I didn’t pick the book back up for three days. It’s all build build build unsettling creepy horror terror face-punch reveal over.
It’s fucking great.
And Now, Some Recommendations
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl. Probably the first short story collection I ever read, besides collected fairy tails and myths and such, and I still have my childhood copy.
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. You can’t go wrong with any of his collections, honestly, but this one has the most stories that have stuck with me.
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor. Ms. O’Connor was a white Southern woman living in the middle of the twentieth century who knew how fucked up everything was and refused to ignore it. The topics she touches on in her short stories would have made her neighbors clutch each other’s pearls.
American Gothic Tales collected by Joyce Carol Oates. Gothic as a genre is about as American as dunking on Tampa, and this collection has stories spanning two hundred years.
How Long ‘til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin. Author of the Broken Earth Trilogy, these stories are all speculative, solarpunk, and afrofuturism, and include some of those ‘working out the concept’ stories that would eventually lead to her major novels.