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A Very Short Introduction to the Short Story
Short stories are great because you can read a whole story in one sitting, so you don’t have to remember characters and situations like you do with a longer book. The thing that can be a little bit harder is having to understand new characters and situations for each story, but a good short story writer has tricks to help you do that efficiently. Just pay close attention at the beginning.
You can also make your job easier by paying attention to the type of collection that you choose; more on that below.
Stories are the very first kind of literature that most of us know about, except for possibly nursery rhymes. But somewhere around third grade, most of us start reading “chapter books”, and then “reading” becomes “novels”, and that’s it.
In English class there may be a lot of short stories. That’s very often because the teacher is required to introduce you to a lot of different authors and time periods, so there’s no time to read longer works. I’m sure you didn’t complain. We all have a lot to do in high school. The problem is that we read (or not) so many that they all tend to run together. You also might think of them as a school thing because of those big thick textbooks we usually had.
Short stories were not something that were invented just to give teachers something to make you read. They are a real thing, and you do find them “in the wild”, or in other words, in a bookstore or library.
I imagine that people have been making up stories for as long as they could talk to each other. You probably know that the myths and fairy tales that you probably heard as a child were not just meant to be stories, and certainly not to be children’s stories. If you have never done so before, get yourself a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, and you will see. If you read a lot of them to your children, they will have nightmares. And also you will have to explain some things that you don’t want to. If you read the beginning books in the Old Testament, you will notice that the stories seem to come from the oral tradition, when stories were passed on through telling them because either writing didn’t exist yet, or later, because the average person couldn’t write. Books were heavy and expensive, so nothing was written down anyway unless it was considered important. Books were not for entertainment! The first person to write down the stories is recording what has been passed down, and these were the first short stories.
Novels v. Short Stories
It’s kind of funny how novels and short stories developed differently. Novels were invented from collections of letters. First people would collect a bunch of letters and pass them around as reading material (kind of like we would use a blog or a social media feed to keep up with someone today), and eventually people started writing “fake” letters with the purpose of telling a story. Then pieces of novels were published in installments in newspapers or magazines as a way of getting people to buy all of them, which is one reason those 18th century novels are so long….
Short stories are the opposite. They started with a big frame around them…think about the Canterbury Tales, where the individual stories are told in the context of the framework of the group’s pilgrimage, or even the Arabian Nights, which is a series of stories told within the framework of Scheherazade trying to save her life. Within this frame, individual characters tell stories for a particular purpose having to do with entertainment.
So the first novels came from individual letters that were compiled, and the stories came from story telling events that were later broken down into individual stories.
Then I suppose widespread literacy and easy (and cheap) printing techniques came along, and magazines and newspapers, where both were published, came along.
Over the centuries, and especially with advent of widespread literacy and printed materials in the 19th century, the short story sprang up as an individual entity. As I mentioned, it was usually published in a periodical that would have a range of different texts, including news, poetry, and maybe a serialized novel.
Of course, now we can get our stories in a variety of ways, even at home. In my mind, a television series is much like a story. When I only have a little time, I watch an episode or two of a favorite rather than committing to a movie, or a longer book. Periodicals no longer feature a lot of fiction: some magazines do, but the ones that emphasize them are more “literary” in nature. Many popular, mass market magazines (not all) have stopped because the mass market is focused on other types of entertainment.
It used to be that most magazines ran at least one, and before that, newspapers did too. This was before people had many options at home. In one of the “Little House” books, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura and her family are thrilled when they are given a stack of old newspapers to keep them entertained during the winter…but they aren’t interested in the old news…they are interested in the old stories! And they don’t sit around and read them alone, they wait until they have time to sit down, and they then read them as a family, much as in the same way that we might save certain TV shows to watch as a family today.
Although stories may not be a part of the family entertainment routine as they once were, there are plenty of short stories still being written and published, if you know where to look. There are even quite a lot available for free. Below is a list of possible sources and ways to find short stories depending on your interests.
Mixed anthologies are a good way to figure out what you like. Just flipping through an anthology will help remind you of authors you forgot long ago.
They actually are not the best way to go for deeper reading because you have to adjust yourself to a new style each time you start a story. You also have a completely different setting, which may be confusing (especially if there is no introduction to the story) along with the different characters. The extra mind work you have to do is called the “cognitive load”, and it means that you can’t concentrate on the deeper aspects of the style and story as easily.
Also, the stories in mixed anthologies are not necessarily the best stories the authors wrote. The authors and the publisher have to release the rights to the story. The motive in allowing a story to be in a mixed anthology is to increase sales for the author and his/her normal publisher, not the publisher of the mixed anthology. So usually the stories in mixed anthologies are good ones, but not always the best.
You tend to see the same stories in mixed anthologies over and over because the rights have been released.
Think of a mixed anthology as a mixed box of candy: you buy it to figure out what you like.
Use these guidelines to choose your collection:
Look at the parameters of the collection to see if they suit you.
Is is all male or female?
Would you like a certain ethnicity?
Would you like American, British, World authors, or something else?
Written in English or translated? Are you interested in a certain subgenre, such as science fiction?
Are you interested in a particular time period, or do you want contemporary (i.e. living) authors?
Look to see what kind of guidelines there are to the authors. It’s easiest to have a short introduction on the same page as the story along with a guide to the author’s major collections.
Where to find a mixed anthology:
Unfortunately, short stories don’t usually get their own section in a bookstore. You might be able to find a section of short story anthologies at the end of the fiction section, perhaps on the same shelf as the Literary Criticism, but these are usually collections of mixed authors. Starting with one can be a good way to figure out what you like, but you might have a hard time reading them because you have to adjust yourself to a different style for each story. I would use these books as a way to determine what you like and then move on.
In a Library:
In the library, mixed anthologies should be found in the nonfiction section under 808.83 in the Dewey Decimal System, which is what most public libraries use. Some librarians may move them to increase circulation, so ask if you don’t see them there.
Single author short story collections
Single author short stories great long-term alternatives to novels. You do not need to feel guilty about reading short stories, if you care about such things. They are a legitimate genre in their own right. Many authors specialize in them.
Single author story collections are best for dipping in and out of if you find you can’t read often enough to keep a novel’s plot in your head. The style and rough setting of the stories from one author are likely to be similar, which means it will take less effort to “get in” to the story when you sit down to read.
Many novelists start out with short stories, so if you have a favorite author, check online to see if that author has short story collections published. Other novelists continuously write and publish short stories throughout their careers, and there is a smaller group (listed below) of authors who focus on short stories.
The modern short story was invented near the middle of the 19th century: the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century is the golden age of the short story. If you can remember some authors that you liked from school, remember that they probably wrote more short stories than modern authors because there was more money in it.
3 Types of Single Author Collections: what suits you?
1. A collection that was written to be published together but have completely different characters and settings. If they were written to be published in a collection that was planned by the author, the stories may have a similar theme, especially if the author writes short stories a lot.
I am not a big short story reader, but this one below is one of my favorites. You might know Lahiri for her novel The Namesake, which was made into a movie (see right column for trailer).
2. A collection that was put together from an author’s previously published work. In this case, you might get more strong or well known stories, but the stories were probably written over many years and vary a lot in style and theme. It can be like getting a “Greatest Hits” album/CD rather than the individual albums. Or it can just be a money-making effort on the part of the publisher to capitalize on an author who has built a following for novels…which doesn’t make it bad, just different. A publisher or author will select a range of previously published (in magazines or other collections) stories and usually add a couple new stories.
3. A loosely collected series of stories that when read together form an overarching plot. Major characters in some of the stories might be minor characters in others, but you may see a loose time continuum. This type of collection is a nice halfway point between a novel, where you have to remember everything, and short stories, where you have to start from scratch with understanding what’s going on each time.
Sometimes the term “novel” is mistakenly used interchangeably with “collection” for this type of book, so pay attention.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a good example of this type of book, and now there is a sequel.
4. A frame story: Think The Canterbury Tales or the Arabian Nights, if you paid any attention to what you read in school. In this type of organization, there is a main story that sets up who is telling the story and who the listeners are, but the stories within are, at least supposedly, separate. They may have elements that work together to create a theme.
Finding Short Stories in the Library
In the library, Canadian and American short story collections are under 813.08. British authors are 823.08. Look around for world authors or ask the librarian; all literature and literary criticism is in the 800 section. The problem with “literature” is that it is also “fiction”, so depending on the library, it could also be in the regular Fiction section, which is shelved by author last name.
Figuring out what you like
1. Get to know authors you like who are known for short story writing. Keep checking The Lois Level…articles on short works come out every other Sunday.
2. Think back to any authors that you liked when you were in school. Many authors from the mid to late 19th century up to the mid 20th century published a lot of short stories, perhaps more than current authors, because there were a lot of magazines publishing them that paid well.
3. There are still magazines called “literary magazines” that publish a lot of short stories, and they often have a lot of content available freely online. These magazines are funded by grants rather than advertiser revenue, so they can afford to do this.
4. Popular magazines such as the New Yorker and Harper’s still publish a lot of short stories and poetry. Some content is available freely on their website. Buying a subscription gives you access to their archives online. The New Yorker is available through Apple News Plus and also very likely through your local public library online (see article above in the right column). For Harper’s, you really need to subscribe to the magazine, but your subscription does give you access to everything they have ever published online. Keep in mind that magazines really make money through their advertising, not subscription fees, so as long as you have time to read the material, a subscription is a great value.
Sur La Lune Fairy Tales (below)
Sur La Lune Fairy Tales (below)
The New Yorker (free online copy, usually free e-copies through your local library with library card)
Keep in mind that Grimm’s Fairy Tales were collected from the area that is now Germany. Many of them are NOT appropriate for children at all. They were meant for adults and would be the eqivalent, in terms of entertainment, to our watching TV or a movie with our friends and family.
You need to be careful with the Arabian Nights as well…even the frame story is about a concubine that is trying to save her life by telling stories. She’s also trying to cure the king of his appetite for killing his concubines, so the stories proceed accordingly.
Enjoy the free fairy tales on Sur La Lune, a 20 year old website, if you can believe it!
Dangerous Liaisons was one of the first novels published in the last 18th century.
Which spawned a great movie….
And a great teen movie.
With a really great song (and spoiler! Just warning you!):
By the Shores of Silver Lake is not the most famous of the “Little House” books. It comes in the middle of the series, and despite the cover, it isn’t the most adventurous, but it’s always been one of my favorites. Laura and her family help pass the time in the winter by reading stories from a stack of newspapers they are given.
A commonly used college text.
Taking a look at each year’s Best American Short Stories is a good way to see which contemporary authors you might like.
Free Magazines from your Local Library
To find The New Yorker and other great magazines for free online (in the United States), go to your local public library’s website and log in using your card number and password. Every library’s website is different, but if you have magazine check out available, you can probably find it under Ebsco Magazines. If you can’t find it, call or visit your library for help. You will probably need to physically go to the library if you need a library card. They usually want a photo ID with your address or a photo ID plus a utility bill showing your address to get a free library card.
The number of magazines that your library subscribes to varies widely, but usually they have The New Yorker, which is a weekly and the best for cartoons, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction. A subscription to The New Yorker is a good value because you also get access to their digital archives online (note that this magazine is a WEEKLY, which is why the subscriptions seem expensive). The Atlantic is also usually available, and they have great long-form journalism and stories. The one magazine that no service seems to have is Harper’s, but a subscription is well worth the money if you have time to read it; for the price you also get access to their digital archive. All of these magazines offer some free content through their websites as well.
If you do not have access to Ebsco Magazines through your library, try Apple News Plus (Apple News is free, but you need to pay the monthly fee to get the magazines mentioned, plus many others).
Amazon Kindle Unlimited’s magazine service is very spotty, but you can read Apple News Plus magazines on a Kindle Fire with the App.
The October Country was published as a short story collection; compare with the compilation of Ray Bradbury’s stories below.
Below are two different collections of Canadian Alice Munro’s work, one published as a collection, and one “best of” compilation.
More sources for short stories
This collection of 100 Must Read Short story collections from Book Riot may keep you busy for the rest of your natural life.
Free content from the Virginia Quarterly Review’s fiction page
Free fiction from Granta
Free fiction from The Atlantic
Did you enjoy any of these in high school?
J.D. Salinger was actually known for stories before he wrote The Catcher in the Rye.
If you liked The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote a lot of short stories about the same time period.
Go to The Lois Level on Facebook to share your favorite short stories.
Check out The Lois Level’s Short Story collections on Pinterest here!