May is National Short Story Month

Lots of writers made their name in the short story - Raymond Carver, Alice Munroe, Flannery O’Connor. A sometimes tricky, occasionally hard to define genre (consider, for example, the stories of Lydia Davis), at its best the short story can be a versatile nugget of writing. Yet, despite the accolades received by recent collections like Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, awarded the Pulitzer in 2000, and Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, which won the PEN/Faulkner this year, many readers are hesitant - and even downright resistant - to settling down with a story collection.

Short stories should not be considered a warm-up to novel writing. Writers from Edith Wharton to Annie Proulx have excelled in both genres and, when wielded by talented writers, the short story can slice through the core of human emotion more cleanly than some novels. As Colum McCann stated in the National Post, "Short stories are fierce, tight, imploding universes where every word matters."

My favorite story collections are ones that linger after the book is closed and back on my shelf. Junot Díaz’s Drown, about the struggles and challenges of Dominican adolescents, filled me with afterimages that creep into my consciousness now, years after I read it. Mary Gaitskill’s more recently published collection, Don’t Cry, moves from the hard cynicism of the Reagan-era to the fleeting idealism in the era of the Iraq War with Gaitskill’s characteristic intensity. For me, T.C. Boyle’s true talent is in writing short stories which, unlike his novels, are uniformly superb pieces of realistic fiction about the tension between nature and humanity. In Wild Child, Boyle’s characters come to a personal realization after surviving an external trauma. The way he implicates the reader’s own choices into the larger narrative to which his characters participate establishes him as a true master of the short story genre.

Short stories don’t always have to be emotionally shattering to be good. Roald Dahl, probably best known for his children’s books, has a darkly humorous and occasionally macabre collection of short fiction entitled The Best of Roald Dahl that the more cynical will enjoy. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is a collection of linked stories whose dark themes Johnson transcends with gently placed humor and angelic prose.

For readers who prefer to sample a variety of styles, the Best American Short Stories 2009, edited by Alice Sebold, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, selected by Junot Díaz, Paula Fox, and YiYun Li are two wonderful collections that bring together the best of recently published stories from literary journals and magazines across the country. Those with little time on their hands might consider reading “sudden” fiction, a cousin to the short story generally defined as fiction of 1,000 words or less. Sudden fiction isn’t always about narrative; sometimes pieces function more as meditations or wordplay than as strict stories.  As Lydia Davis said in an interview, stories are “elastic.”

My colleagues had a lot to say about short fiction as well. Adam Waterreus chastised me for not including Andre Dubus’s Selected Stories among my favorites, which he claims are “the best ever.” Rose Levine, told me she enjoys reading short stories between bouts of cleaning her house because they’re the perfect length for a distraction but not so long that she forgets her obligations. Michael Allen told me that Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the best collection of stories he’s read in a long time and described Tower as “the poet of loserdom. When things can’t possible get worse, they do as he wring real pathos along with catastrophic hilarity from his down-at-the-hell protagonists.” Michael called the collection “vivid, concrete and unforgettable.” - Lacey Dunham