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. James Foreman
    James Foreman says:

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

  2. Cory
    Cory says:

    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. Maple Eskimo
    Maple Eskimo says:

    ‘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. Logan
    Logan says:

    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. Klein
    Klein says:

    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. Genious writers exist
    Genious writers exist says:

    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.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] is a great blog post on why everyone should read short stories. The novel is always portrayed as deeper, sexier, more intellectual. But let’s not forget […]

  2. […] A few more good reasons why you should be reading flash fiction? Here you go. […]

  3. […] There is a whole huge tradition of short stories that I am only going to briefly touch on.  I’m no historian and I have no interest in telling anyone actual facts in my blog, so I’m going to keep it short and write like University students.  (I mean steal from Wikipedia).  Short stories go way back to when people used to pass down stories verbally.  A whole epic could take a long time to tell, so they were broken down into parts that could be told in one sitting.  Eventually people thought that writing was way cool, so things didn’t have to be memorized.  It was then that short stories developed.  (Let’s call it sometime in the 1700s).  Without any need to memorize a story, the only reason to have short parts was to tell whole stories that could be read in one sitting.  At one time it was common for almost all writers to have short story collections as well as novels and novellas.  This tradition still lives on today in literary circles.  But sadly it isn’t as prevalent in the wider arena of reading.  A lot of really good authors start with short stories.  They use them much in the same way I am using them and as a way to break into the industry and make a name for themselves before they finally publish novels.  I read a pretty cool article about short stories.  You should check it out.  ( […]

  4. […] Small fortune: Why everyone should give short stories a chance — (Via willyumtx.) […]

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