Small fortunes: Why everyone should read short stories


Novels, novels, we all love novels. The most amorphous of genres, the novel has swallowed literature whole in the past couple of hundred years – we digest our fiction in two three, four, five hundred page chunks, and even larger gulps if we’re fantasy groupies.

In the hierarchy of genres, it’s certainly top-dog, at least if sales figures are anything to go by. But, we cry, it’s far from the only player on the fiction scene – what about the short story? Pithy, intense, unforgiving, enthralling, hilarious and unforgettable: short form fiction is a real force to be reckoned with, and as much as we love a juicy fat novel, the short story is our first love. Other than the fact I write them, here’s why.

1. They’re small yet perfectly formed

Haven’t you ever eaten the most delicious, sensuous, memorable starter, only to follow it up with a bloated, forgettable main course? We don’t want to diss the novel, but we’re really eager to dispel the idea that the short-story is a mere lite-bite ahead of the main event. Our meal analogy falls down there, of course, so how about we re-imagine things: if the novel’s an eagle, the short story is a hummingbird – no less stunning and compelling for its smaller stature.

2. They have a history of awesomeness

It’s been around a long time, taking off in the nineteenth century thanks to the likes of Poe, Hawthorne and Chekhov, and then getting revamped in the early twentieth century when folks like James Joyce got hold of it – the modernist model (understated, character-based, revolving around a quiet epiphany or a moment of internal revelation that shifts your understanding of the story that came before) is still the dominant way the short story is written these days. But don’t get turned off by this: it might sound heavy and academic, but really, the short story is a genre so full of variety and vigour it’d give an Olympic gymnast a good fight.


3. They come in all shapes and sizes

How short is short, you ask? A couple of lines or a couple of pages, right up to about a hundred pages, according to those who’d argue the case for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but anywhere between seven and thirty pages would probably be considered standard. People who don’t read much short fiction often say they can’t get a handle on it because it’s no sooner started than it’s over – but that’s the power of a short story! They say what needs to be said, getting in and out like the sneakiest of jewel thieve, leaving consternation in their wake! A good short story will leave your head spinning – you’d be amazed how much plot and backstory and characterization can be accomplished in a couple of thousand words.


4. Their variety will spice up your literary life

If you’re used to the novel, and to long novels at that, sure, it does take some adjustment to get into short story mode, but it’s worth the effort: when you hit the art galleries, you’d be a bit disappointed if the whole place was full of nothing but oil paintings, right? Different art forms requite different ways or seeing, thinking and accepting, and that applies to novels and short stories the same way it applies to paintings, photographs and sculptures.

5. They’re stunning collections in all genres

So you’ve opened your hearts, minds, arms, shelves and kindles: what’s actually out there? What isn’t would be a better question! From Asimov’s robotics, to Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothics grotesques; from Kelly Link’s modern urban super-disturbing fairy stories to Kevin Barry’s exuberant, demented vision of Ireland; from Mary Gaitskill’s tales of sexual experimentation (the movie Secretary was based on one of hers!)


There’s Edith Pearlman’s exquisite stories about Jewish life in the USA; Alice Munro’s epic stories of Canadian life to Lydia Davis’s idiosyncratic and brilliant micro-fictions; from William Trevor’s haunting stories of rural tragedies to Donald Barthelme’s peculiar meta-fictional experimentations; from Cheever and Updike and Carver to David Foster Wallace, George Saunders and Wells Tower. Honestly, there really is a short story out there for everyone. Whether you want weird stuff, crime stories, science-fiction, romance, postmodern quirkiness or kitchen-sink realism, it’s out there.

Unlike a novel, you can get through a story pretty fast, but just like a novel, a good one will stay with you for life. Go forth, read stories, and help them prosper!

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13 replies

  1. Read Jorge Luis Borges’s El Sur (the South) and you’ll never again think that the short story is an inferior genre.

  2. How can you mention the modern short story and not in the same breath mention the master of it, Dan Chaon. Very surprised to not see his name up there.

  3. ‘Look at the Birdie’ by Kurt Vonnegut is an awesome collection of short stories of a few different genres, for anyone who likes Kurt or short stories in general.

  4. And you just said “Carver,” just his last name and that’s it. You might as well have spelled it with a lower-case c.

  5. Great job selling the short form. I blame magazines for selling out to advertisers. Used to be able to read short stories all the time in magazines. Not anymore.

  6. I’ve never looked on short stories earnestly before saw Hemingways’ six-word novel – genious writer expressed all the possible pain in a few words.
    This article charged me with the desire to read all these stories.

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