Written by Vanessa Simerskey
Short story. Definition supported by Oxford: “A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” While this definition is accurate, I believe I can write a better one. Let’s try this again. Short story. Definition provided by yours truly: A story that presents a snapshot, not a video, into a world the author crafted, and focuses on a particular moment or set of moments. Can’t forget to mention they’re typically meant to be read all in one go. While this is pretty good (if I have to say so myself), I think there’s one more definition that can one up even my own. Let’s try this one last time. Short story. Definition from short story author, Sherrie Flick: “For me, the writing of short stories is more philosophical, requiring first a sound idea and a brave concept. That concept is then whittled down to smaller, more precise ideas and becomes a matter of describing the big world through a small window.” While excellent, even this definition is just a definition. It doesn’t fully explain all the reasons why short stories are worth reading. Luckily, that’s what I’m here for. To tell you why they’re a gratifying, engaging, and refreshing form of literature.
There are a slew of people out there who genuinely cherish reading but, like most hobbies, find it challenging to maintain. As someone who is desperately trying to be an avid reader of novels, finishing a book gives me a surging sense of pride and accomplishment. However, for the 21st century reader (like myself!), finding time to squeeze in reading a novel can be tricky when the majority of your time is devoted to other daily responsibilities. You eventually just add reading a few new books to your New Year’s resolution again, or to the endless list of things you vow to yourself you’ll do soon (and soon is never as soon as you’d hoped). For those of us who fall squarely in this disappointing category, I present: the short story.
The benefit short stories provide stems from their intrinsic shortness. Short stories can not only be read fairly quickly, but they also create similar feelings to those felt after the arduous task of finishing a novel. This compelling genre of literature is the ideal solution to many who want to cultivate their hobby of reading while also juggling long shifts at work, between the back to back classes along with the maintenance of semi-vigorous workout routine and the attempting to cook semi-healthy meals for yourself. .
However, not everyone wants to cultivate this hobby – there are plenty out there who aren’t the biggest fans of reading, and might even, dare I say, hate it. It’s understandable to lose interest when a story isn’t instantly captivating or doesn’t resonate with the reader, but it makes many believe they’ll forever hate this solitary pastime. For these poor unenlightened souls, short stories can stand as a bridge to bring non-readers to the realm of literature – a way, if you will, for them to test the waters before committing to diving in.
Short stories, in their infinite versatility, can appeal to yet another group of people entirely: those looking to expand their reading palate. This type of literature is perfect for giving readers a convenient way to experiment with authors and genres. Nervous about reading an entire science fiction novel? Intimidated by an author like David Foster Wallace? Reading a short story grants you the opportunity to dip your toes in the waters and try out styles and genres of writing that you might otherwise be opposed to. Readers can also expose themselves to a variety of cultures within and beyond their country’s borders in the span of ten pages. Yes, it’s true that other forms of literature can achieve this same goal, but short stories provide more condensed and intimate snapshots of another community’s culture, familial relationships and aspects of everyday life. A short story, by its finite page or word count limitations give us as readers less opportunities to establish a clear historical and cultural context. Therefore each word, phrase, and sentence is carefully picked and placed (like a flower in a bouquet, so to speak) to create the backdrop for these stories.
It is the nature of short stories for the thrill of the unknown to be a prevalent feeling for readers. Some short stories authors reveal less information to provide a gap for creativity; when the story is on a word count crunch, readers get the chance to fill in the blanks (like a cooperative game of Mad Libs) and mustn’t take any word for granted. Sherrie Flick, writer of the flash fiction chapbook “I Call This Flirting,” discusses in a radio interview the process of short story writing and her goals for the readers. “I want them to think back on the story years later and add their own sub-plots, characters, and details. Ideally, the story expands beyond the page, and the reader is active in that expansion,” she says. From small details and clues the authors did include, readers can speculate about what happened before or after the short story or figure out other context information about the characters and setting.
At this point, I’ve hopefully peaked your interest and stimulated your brain waves a little to convince you, dear reader, that short stories are worth your while. I’ve curated a list of five short stories that I believe emulate the best aspects of what makes a short story transcendent and worth your time.
1. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez
In this short story, Márquez demonstrates the best of magical realism when a strange and mysterious old man with enormous wings shows up in the backyard of a local family who lives near the beach. As the (presumed) angel suddenly becomes the town’s idea of a zoo animal, Márquez offers a new perspective about the way communities handle the unknown and how people can profit from the oddities of the world. The reader, throughout the story, keeps asking questions – who is the old man, how did he get to the beach, and what exactly does the ending mean? Márquez, with his brilliant skill can introduce you to the world of magical realism while also forcing you to reflect on how society may treat outcasts and he does it in under 3,000 words. Although originally printed in Spanish in a collection named La Hojarasca, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” was published in a translated version of Márquez’s collection called Leaf Storm. Marquez has mastered the art of writing fantastical short stories and if this one peaks your interest, the Harry Ransom currently has an exhibition featuring this celebrated and extraordinary writer.
2. “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler
“Speech Sounds” is a wonderful blend of dystopia and science fiction. Butler produces a story set in a future version of Los Angeles where society experienced a major foundational societal shift that spurred violent outbreaks and constant fear. The main character Rye is faced with multiple life threatening choices (like should she trust a stranger she just met? Should Rye engage in the violence when the people around her begin to ?) that reshape her identity and her future going forward. Through Rye’s eyes, Butler captures a restless world of chaos that’s only saving grace is to figure out how to effectively communicate with one another. Butler is a great stepping stone into the realm of science fiction for those who are hesitant to dive into the genre. “Speech Sounds”appears in two of Butler’s collections, Bloodchild and Other Stories and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. Whether you’re really into dystopias or never really got into the Hunger Games, Butler will strike your fancy with her take on a society that struggles to (quite literally) understand one another and establish their own voice, especially the voice of the woman.
3. “The Management of Grief” by Bharati Mukherjee
Set in the mid 1980s of Toronto, “The Management of Grief” tells the story of families who were impacted by the (real life) terrorist bombing of an Air India airplane. The story follows the seemingly calm Shaila as she processes the next excruciatingly painful chapter of her life after losing three immediate family members. Many face denial, others seek humor, and some crave isolation, but Shaila seems to act naturally as if she is in complete control of her grief and has found peace. Though many others in her community look up to her as an example for how to manage grief, Shaila isn’t exactly as put together as she may seem. Shaila’s internal struggle is beginning to burst forth and she must go on a journey of healing that may conflict with her cultural traditions and gender norms. Mukherjee uses a short story format to condense a historical moment while creating a learning opportunity for the readers to take note of and understand (and even criticize ) the outcomes of this catastrophic event. But even if you’re the most stoic person, Mukherjee will make your eyes glisten at one point in his heart-rending short story. “The Management of Grief” is published in her collection The Middleman and Other Stories
4. “Real Women Have Bodies” by Carmen Maria Machado
From the beginning of “Real Women Have Bodies,” there’s a looming eeriness that never seems to fade away (inside joke if you read the story). Machado constructs a seemingly normal world but with a perverse and surrealistic twist that involves a contagious and unusual disease. After becoming intimate with the dressmaker’s daughter, Petra, the narrator finds herself at a crossroads when she discovers how this strange disease and the local dress shop (which our narrator also happens to work at) are entangled. Machado uses this story to criticize beauty and body standards and the dehumanization of women if they don’t meet those expectations. The author focuses on ideas revolving around gender violence, body image, and sexuality in this story and throughout the rest of the collection. Machado has a captivating writing style that is just as strong in her other works – this is an example of an author who might lure you in with a short story but have you stay for a novel or memoir (Dream House is definitely worth looking into). “Real Women Have Bodies” was published in Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties.
5. “Children of the Sea” by Edwidge Danticat
Danticat’s “Children of the Sea” focuses on two correspondents: the first is a man writing from sea in the process of escaping from Haiti, the second, his lover who is still in Haiti with her family. The repressive political corruption evident throughout the story is emblematic of parts of Hatian history during the late 1950’s and how it permanently traumatized and displaced many Hatian citizens. By hearing the profound exchanges between a divided couple facing these grim circumstances, the reader not only empathises with their great suffering but is told a lesser known history about this island. “Children of the Sea” retells history from the inside rather than simply stating facts. The way the love story is mixed into a highly dangerous and political world is what makes this story especially beautiful and heartbreaking. “Children of the Sea”is a part of Danticat’s short story collection Krik? Krak!
6. “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” by Sandra Cisneros
“Little Miracles, Kept Promises” is a story that tells multiple stories about Mexican-Americans. A multitude of deeply personal letters written in Spanish and English (sometimes a combination of the two) along with mementos are left on an altar, each asking God or the Virgin Mary to answer their petitions. Each prayer has its own unique voice that gives a glimpse of the challenges faced by each individual. Whether it’s a young woman begging to find a good man or a thankful father raving about his healthy new-born son, Cisneros provides an intimate insight of the role religion plays for Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” is featured in Cisneros’ collection Woman Hollering Creek.
Other stories worth mentioning include “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “Mrs. Perez” by Oscar Casares. Also written by authors above: “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado, and “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros
Let’s be real. Putting this list together was pretty difficult. Narrowing down this list from my original 20 to 6 was one of the most agonizing things I could ever do but these…these are the strenuous lengths I would do for the sake of sharing the unending possibilities of short stories with the world. These precious, beautifully crafted tiny balls of writing are worth sharing about just as much as they’re worth reading about. Authors carefully selected the right words (conscious of their word count limitations) and carefully crafted language to capture a moment in a universe filled with precious lives, breath-taking sights, the heavy burden of tragedy, and all the small things that make life unique as well as terrifying. Now please do me the biggest favor: stop reading this article – no seriously stop – and go read a darn short story.