Books, For Readers

The Short Story — In Search of a Cure for Reader Burn-Out

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During my big-haired days of high school, I came to dread that point in English Lit. where we would inevitably begin the “Short-Story Unit.”  After years of reading novels with happy, or, at least, tidy endings, the short story was like an alien to me and many of my classmates.

“What happened next?” we would shout at the teachers, demanding that they tie up the plot for us in a neat little package.  Many stories ended with characters simply walking away from each other into some dark, myserious void — like Will Robinson and family, perpetually Lost in Space.

We were left hanging in ways which were unsatisfactory to those at the peak of their angst-filled, impatient selves — forced to (shudder) think, and fill in the holes with our own (often inferior) imaginations.  Their endings were more like beginnings to ends that we couldn’t see.

One day, while we were packing up our books after drilling our teacher about a story’s symbolism (Can’t a clock just ever be a clock?!), I remember telling a friend, “I loathe short stories.  They are, like, totally avoiding the big questions, you know?”  At the time, I felt like I had said something very smart and forward-thinking.  Now, I realize that I was, like, speaking fluent “Idiot.”  Short stories weren’t avoiding the “big questions,” they were bringing them into focus.

Still, my loathing continued until my 18th birthday.  And, then my mom bought me the book that changed my mind — The Best American Short Stories.

My first inclination was to leave it sitting on the shelf, unopened, until the end of time.  However, weeks later, as an avoidance tactic to writing an essay paper (I’m nothing, if not a procrastinator) I picked it up and started reading.  And, I couldn’t stop.  Something about the short story had finally clicked for me.  The endings no longer frustrated — they intrigued.

Maybe maturity played a part in this, or the fact that I had started writing more consistently, and had become a better reader for it.  Or, maybe it was reading the supposed “best of the best.”  Whatever the case, I was hooked.  Since then, I have subscribed to many short story publications, and, every fall, take a trip to the book store to treat myself to the newest copy of my series (and a cranberry scone).

After whining about my Reader Burn-Out in a recent post, I decided to pull out all of my battered Best American copies, and pick through the years, searching for favorites.  I found, “Moriya,” by Dean Paschal,  Lorrie Moore’s “Terrific Mother,” “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” (Karen Russell)…and so many others.  I started reading.  And, I couldn’t stop.

Many critics argue that the short story is dead, and that the only people still reading them are the people writing them.  That last part might even be a little true, but there are a heck of lot of people writing, so I don’t think we should lose hope, yet.  Its format also goes along well with our world’s ever-shrinking attention spans.  Yet, aside from those reasons, there is an immediacy to the short story that demands the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.  You coast along to your own conclusions minutes, days or weeks after you’ve read the final word.

I’ve put my books aside again, but the stories still have their hold.  I may not be cured of RBO, but I believe I took a small, short step in the right direction — a possible beginning to an end I can’t see.  Perhaps, my brain will not turn to mush, after all.


So, are you a short story advocate or enemy?  Which ones are your favorites?

46 thoughts on “The Short Story — In Search of a Cure for Reader Burn-Out”

  1. Love ’em! Short stories are just my size. In fact, I might have to search the library for a couple of the Best American books. Thanks for the tip!


  2. I loathed short stories in high school, would rather hit a 400-page Victorian novel any day, but have developed quite an appreciation for a good short story since a grad school class on Hemingway–and for flash fiction. That said, there are a lot of horribly boring and unsatisfying stories being published. The ending should be “finished” or intriguing or both.


    1. Thanks for your comments, MAK. I agree — there are a ton of short stories where about the only thing that happens is a bunch of crying or fist-pumping, and little else. It’s still a STORY, not just a character analysis.


  3. I like reading them, not so much writing them. I have too many terrible things lined up for my characters to squeeze into a short story. lol


    1. I kind of have the opposite problem — I have things lined up, but if I start thinking too much about the total word count of a book…it gets a little paralyzing. I like to think of my chapters as their own short stories — then it becomes manageable.


    1. Oops hit enter too soon.

      I recently attended a short story work shop – How to Give Your Short Story The X Factor – and the tutor, Lindsay Ashford, gave a top tip – at the end of a short story the reader should feel that something has changed or that there was a moment when things could have changed.


  4. I hardly ever read short stories, or write them for that matter. I have a difficult time, when writing, to be concise so that may play into it a bit. Although I did read a bunch of Truman Capote short stories like the Diamond Guitar and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Those were very thought provoking.


    1. They’re not for everyone. And, the bad ones are really bad. I recently read a post on short-story writing that said something like, “You can’t train for a marathon by doing a bunch of short sprints,” which I think is what a lot of the writers see the short story as — training ground for their novels. But, it’s really its own beast.


  5. Wait- how did you find my picture?!!
    But seriously, I loved your comment about short stories and how they avoid the big question- or ask the big question and avoid the answers, depending on your perspective I guess…
    The strange thing is I began my writing with short stories. I didn’t even think about writing a novel up until one year ago simply because I never thought I could have the patience to write something that long, that tidy and explain every little detail, tie all the loose ends. With short stories, I enjoyed the liberty.
    I still love them, and write them occasionally but I’m also working on my novel. Best of two worlds 🙂


  6. I do love short stories.
    Stephen King is always singing their praises too, so who am I to argue?

    I work in an adult education centre which has a Creative Writing Class & a Writers’ Circle.
    I have the lucky job of photocopying their short stories & poems, which they then read in class.
    It’s one of my favourite times, I don’t let them get their work back until I’ve read it.
    Most of them do not intend their work to ever be published, which is a shame, because it’s very good. Some of it has had me crying with laughter, and other bits, just plain crying.

    Long live the short story!


  7. Too funny! I’ve always been a fan of those endings that aren’t clear and leave something to my imagination. It’s a reason I write so much flash fiction, I love letting others decide how they think it ends. I even love the movies that do it 🙂

    Thanks for reading my stuff!


  8. I love short stories! I have written many and I wish there were more places out there who published them. I still remember the first chills of horror when reading the creepy short stories by M.R James or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a lost art that I hope one day returns…


  9. I hated short stories in high-school, too. I think it was the fact that I was being forced to read them and then dissect them, like so many frogs in a biology class. Sure, I like dissecting stories/novels in my own mind, and nowadays I love nothing more than writing a slightly BS literary essay that nonetheless has legitimate points to it… But back then, well, it was hard to look at a teacher I loathed and accept that, per your example, a clock wasn’t just a clock.

    Since then, I’ve been exposed to more and more short stories, and although my stomach still clenches for a moment when I think about reading one [which is stupid, since I write them, but whatever] I remind myself how much I’ve loved the short stories I’ve read since high-school and that I need to let go of that preconditioned hatred.

    I’m glad that the short stories have unblocked you! Does this mean you’ve successfully started a novel?


    1. Yes! I’ve been reading “Something’s Missing” by Matthew Dicks per my book club’s selection. Still not back in my normal reading groove, but I’ve got a stack of books on hold at the library waiting for me.


  10. I was like you; avoided them like the plague. I considered them unsatisfying, like half a bite of chocolate. Although, I did do a short story course where I was forced to read them, review them, write them. Yawn.
    But then I read Nina de Gramont’s book, “of cats and men.” Now, I must confess I only bought this book because I mistakenly thought it was a novel – oops. But by the time I realised it was actually a collection of short stories, I was hooked.


  11. Haha, I could relate to this post on so many levels! I won’t go to the extent of saying that I’m an enemy of the short story, but I can say that I don’t necessarily pick up a short stories volume from the book shelves of my own accord.

    As a reader, I feel that there are enough questions in my real life that I don’t want to be loaded with more from imaginary sources. As a writer, I’m just too long winded to (at least currently) be able to tell my story in a few short pages.

    Having said all that, I love the various collections of short stories by two of my favorite authors: Shashi Deshpande and R.K.Narayan. There is so much authenticity to the settings and plots that I put aside my overly analytical hat and just enjoy the morsels they feed me through their stories!


  12. Hey there! Enjoyed this post. As far as the death of short stories. . . Last I checked, short stories made up about three quarters of the forwarded messages in my inbox, so I think the statement speaks mainly to how out-of-touch many critics are with the modern world.

    That said, I like writing them at least as much as reading them.


  13. There was a point I hated the short story too. I could relate to this post very much. But indeed, maybe it does come with maturity. I started reading them I think I was in University.
    Favorite short stories would be: The Price by Niel Gaiman,The Birthday Cake by Daniel Lyons, and All God’s Children Can Dance by Haruki Murakami.


  14. Short stories have annoyed me for a while. They still aren’t my favorite. Although recently I’ve been rather into Flash Fiction, which has worked out pretty well for me.

    Novels are like watching a movie. Short stories are like standing around an art gallery looking at a painting, drinking glasses of lime coke, and chatting with European super-smart-people—the kind who wear jeans, oxfords, blazers, and no ties—about what the painting means. For Pete’s sake, it’s a red stripe on a black canvas…it doesn’t mean anything!!!


    1. Love the analogy! (What is with the red stripe, or the lone red dot?!) But, I think there are some short stories that have a lot to offer. And, I have to ask — If the novel is a movie, and the short story is standing around at the gallery, then what is flash fiction? A commercial?


  15. I LOVE short stories. I just finished my first YA novel, but short stories will always be my first love (actually just posted one of mine on my blog). Some of my favorites are Kate Chopin’s Story of an Hour, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce, and of course, many by Poe. Ooohh, and A Rose for Emily by Faulkner-love that one!


  16. I love short stories, they are like great pop songs and ask deep questions about the human condition if written well. My all time favourite short story writers are Kafka and Thomas Hardy but some more modern writers float my boat too, especially Angela Carter and Chuck Palahniuk.


    1. Ahhh…nice comparison, “like great pop songs.” Chuck P. (Fight Club?), I’m trying to think if I’ve read any of his short stories…I’ll have to look into that — thanks!


      1. I’m not sure if ‘Fugitives asnd refgees’ is strictly short stories or tales based on people and places he’s known. But the novel ‘Haunted’ is effectively a succession of short stories all told by different characters in the book. Dark but also quite amusing at times.


  17. I have to say that it wasn’t until I was well into high school that I realized that short stories weren’t “fake” stories written for big textbook compendiums but an actual genre written by real authors. It must have been the textbook presentation.
    So now, I’m trying to reverse this mentality and garner a better appreciation for them. It is, of course, much harder to write a short story than a novel.
    Right now, I really enjoy some of the O’Henry stories and some Poe.


  18. Hi Amanda, came through to your blog as I noticed we were leaving comments on a few of the same blogs.
    I really like this post! I had a similar experience with shorts, although I only studied english lit in college (I majored in science so most of the lit classes open to me were bobo). And in a book club I was part off many of the members were english lit teachers who had us reading short collections. It was only once I began writing that I began to appreciate them, and even write them on my own – now I’m hooked on writing them, but feel I need to commit more time to reading them. I just love reading my fiction too much so my pile of to read list of nonfiction, poetry, and shorts is really stacking up!


    1. Thanks for coming by, Jennifer! I know what you mean about the reading piles…there’s so much to go through, and it just keeps getting higher.


  19. I was always a bit meh on them but after I started writing, I came to appreciate the merits of short stories. I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection first collection, though I haven’t read the second.

    They still bug me, though, for a very specific reason: as a very fast reader, I devour books, so short stories seem like…light snacks I guess? Or hors d’oeuvres that whet your appetite but leave you hungry, no matter how good they are.


    1. I read, “The Namesake” by Lahiri (which I liked), and I know some of her short stories appear in “America’s Best.”

      I would agree with “light snacks,” which is why they worked well for me during this period of Reader Burn-out. I also like to have them in my car — easy to get through one while I’m waiting on one of my kids.


  20. I really didn’t enjoy short stories in high school either, with the exception of possibly Edgar Allan Poe.

    As the co-owner of an antiquarian bookstore, I would have to agree that “the short story is dead.” We rarely sell those books…




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