The Art of the Short Story

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I spent the summer immersed in short stories for Rediscovering the Classics, a book group run by a friend. We used The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. We were assigned all but nine stores, but a few of us were tempted to tackle even the unassigned stories because of the offer of a prize at the end of the summer. It was worth it to read all the stories for the prize (an awesome bookmark listing 50 books to read before you die), but it was also an enjoyable journey through American short fiction.

I tend to get my short story fix by listening to Selected Shorts, which has actors reading short stories. I occasionally pick up a collection of stories by someone like Kurt Vonnegut or Aimee Bender, but I usually favor novels. After spending the summer reading and discussing short stories with an amazing group of women, I have realized that I need to make them a more regular part of my reading routine.

In the best short stories, authors have to be extremely economical with their words. Each sentence is important, and there is no room for unnecessary description. I like to think of the master short story writer moving their fingers slowly over the keyboard and constantly asking, “Do I really need that word?”

As we often discussed in the book group, short stories offer us a brief glimpse into the lives represented in the story. This means that authors often leave us with vague endings. It is a reminder that the story will still continue after we read the final sentence. Novels can end like this too, but it takes much longer to get there. A short story can provide us with that experience in as little as 20 minutes—sometimes even less time than that.

One of the standout stories in this collection is “In a Far Country” by Jack London. Not only is his description of the far north vivid, so too are the emotions his main characters experience as they slowly spiral to the brink of insanity due to their starvation and isolation. London’s story is one of the finest examples of how 15 pages are enough to pack the punch of a full novel. Each sentence is so full of meaning that I felt the satisfaction of completing a whole book at the end.

“Something to Remember Me By” by Saul Bellow was also memorable. I have not read anything by Bellow before, but this story has made me want to pick up some of his longer work. The narrator of “Something to Remember Me By” says of the story, “I haven’t left a large estate, and this is why I have written this memoir, a sort of addition to your legacy” (540). The narrator is speaking to his adult son, and the story he leaves his son is one of his own childhood. I will not share the details of it here because I think it is best to approach this story without any knowledge of what it is. Let the story unfold for you as though the narrator is telling it aloud to you for the first time. In the opening paragraph, he writes, “My first knowledge of the hidden work of uneventful days goes back to February 1933” (511). I love the phrase “the hidden work of uneventful days,” and I think that is why I find the narrative voice in this story full of both charm and emotional depth.

“Fleur” by Louise Erdrich is also worth mentioning here. Erdrich’s writing is incredibly rich and her descriptions are worth a slow read. I have enjoyed going back and carefully rereading some of my favorite sentences, such as this gem: “The girl is bold, smiling in her sleep, as if she knows what people wonder, as if she hears the old men talk, turning the story over” (740). This story captures the power of Fleur Pillager and is told in the voice of a quiet narrator who often sinks into the background, only to be noticed by the title character.

I feel like I could write something on at least ten more stories, but I will stop here to keep this post from being overly long. Pick up this anthology and take the time to savor each story. You won’t regret it.

Work Cited:

Oates, Joyce Carol, ed. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.