I always hated short stories.
I considered reading a short story like going out to dinner and only ordering an appetizer. Want a real meal? Eat a goddamn novel. – Jacob Tomsky
I came to the short story late. It wasn’t til this year, 2013, at the age of 38, that I finally began to appreciate this form.
I don’t remember exactly when it began. Three ingredients fell into a pot over a period of months – Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and subsequent suggestions that I read “The Lottery,” my quest to read Southern women – and a delicate broth began to bubble. It was thin at first, but as it perked and popped, as it reduced and thickened, its flavor deepened, became more complex, more surprising, and more pleasurable than I thought a humble soup could be.
Like Tomsky, quoted above, I never considered short stories to be – what? Rich? Deep? Memorable? No. None of those alone, and all of them at at once.
Satisfying. That’s what it was. I didn’t think stories would fill me up. I didn’t think they’d satiate. When I read, I want to get lost in a story. I want setting, I want fully fledged characters, I want depth and complexity. I don’t want chop. I don’t want quick. I want a good thing to continue. I want to gorge.
When I first came across A Moveable Feast, I did not realize it was a book of short stories (or memoirs – I think Hemingway didn’t want to get sued, so he claimed “This book is fiction.”) I was disappointed it wasn’t a novel. I began anyway, and within minutes I was underlining passages, finishing a narrative then leafing back to it’s beginning. That bit was only four pages, and look what he did! The amount of story, character, setting, punch that Hemingway accomplished in each piece astonished me. I ate story after story, in bed with my yellow pencil, appreciating short form fiction for the first time, impressed by how smart an author has to be to achieve such brevity.
My reaction was similar when I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I had written about The Haunting of Hill House, and so many reading friends responded with, Have you read “The Lottery?”, that I finally resigned myself to finding the book. My friend Amy said, No, it’s not a book. It’s a short story. Here’s a link. I read it in a matter of minutes, while onions caramelized in a skillet on the stove. In that short amount of time I gasped in wonder at the story’s brilliance, at how much there was to chew on. How much there was to hold on the tongue. How much there was to savor.
And then. My quest to read Southern women. Who comes to mind when you think of Southern women writers? Flannery O’Connor. A sister Savannah native, whom Amy chided me for never reading. “Hello, Andrea. She went to our alma mater.” And what did O’Connor write? You guessed it. Short stories. Twisted, powerful, Southern Gothic 10-page pieces with flesh and blood characters and as deep an immersion in the South as I’ve experienced in any full length novel.
More tastings followed – a wallop of a story from my critique buddy, short fiction from my dad – and it was at this point, when I was in this blinking, vulnerable, maybe short stories are awesome state that I came across Jacob Tomsky’s “So You Hate Short Stories” manifesto on Book Riot, in which he tells the (short story) of the origins of his Short Story Thursday project in which he emails a classic short piece out each week. I was practically cheering by the end of his essay. As soon as I read the final sentence, I sent an email to email@example.com and said, “I just read your piece on Book Riot, and I want short stories on Thursday please. Thank you!”
So far in my 38 years, I’ve read very few brief fiction pieces. I barely know where to begin. Other than O’Connor and Hemingway, my experience with short stories is limited, and I am in a feed-me state: feed me your favorites. My ears perk when my favorite podcasters discuss a must-read compilation of short stories (Alice Munroe), and now, every Thursday, I eagerly await Tomsky’s carefully curated, hilariously introduced, always-a-fun-surprise classic short story in my inbox.
Short stories are becoming my go-to when I want to graze, or snack, or when I am in that limbo between novels, when I’m hungover from the last one or need to cleanse my palate for the next one. But even more than that, even more than snacking or grazing, I am realizing that though a novel may provide a fill-you-up meat and potatoes type meal, sometimes fine dining is composed of tastings – of exquisite soups served in demitasse cups, a single bite of melt-on-your-tongue lamb, a plate of fruits and cheese. And sometimes, the most fun meals are spent lingering late at night, filling up at leisure tapas-style – tortilla Española, Serrano ham, grilled Spanish sausages – sating your palate, your need for entertainment, your hunger, small plate after succulent small plate.
If you think you’d be interested in signing up for Short Story Thursdays (SST), please read Jacob Tomsky’s piece on Book Riot. It will give you a feel for what the introductory email is like for each story – hilarious (to me) and with lots of swearing. You can also follow SST on Facebook and on Twitter