(Updated: 6/14) The short story, according to the New York Times, is on the rise.
The revival, sparked by consumer demand, is receiving a critical response from publishers. The short story is now celebrated and formatted in a wide variety of compositions including audio, apps, and of course e-readers, highlighting the most important reason for its resurgence: accessibility.
Alberto Manguel, in his book A History of Reading recounts the advent of the traditional book format and shape, and how, for centuries, we have persistently sought to carry entire worlds in our pockets, conveniently. (This is largely my deduction, not Manguel's, he seems rather frosty about the current progression towards digital but, his statement makes a strong case for the proliferation of e-readers):
Books one could slip in one's pocket; books in a companionable shape; books that the reader felt could be read in any number of places; books that would not be judged awkward outside a library or a cloister; these books appeared under all kinds of guises. - Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Edgar Allen Poe, upon reviewing Nathanial Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales in 1842 declared that the short story form belonged to "the loftiest region of art". Similar to a poem, a good short story, with its abbreviated fuse and undiluted narrative, detonates in the mind. It does what Barbara Kingsolver wishes any book would do, "I want it to rock my world".
The importance of the short story lies in its capability to examine and portray the inner workings of the mind, either as it affects experience or is affected by it. - Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
It should be no surprise that the short story is rebounding. "The short story, like the novel, is a modern art form; that is to say, it represents, better than poetry or drama, our own attitude toward life," writes Frank O'Connor. This "modern art form" finds a comfortable home between our modern reading devices and hurried, harassed lifestyles.
Many of us can still recall our first encounter with the short story that either leveled or delighted us (generally occurring around Junior High, the requisite time for short form education). Perhaps it was "Rocking Horse Winner" or "The Tale Tell Heart", for many it was Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery". For me, it was two stories, "The Red Pony" (technically a novella) by Steinbeck and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (whose landmark short film also moved me).
As I grew older, I embraced the simple but profound short story genre, accumulating many favorites, including (where possible, I linked to versions online that are free):
- The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges
- Shakespeare's Memory, Jorge Luis Borges
- The Gospel According to Mark, Jorge Luis Borges
- The Other, Jorge Luis Borges
- Reunion, John Cheever
- The Swimmer, John Cheever
- I Bought a Little City, Donald Barthelme
- Bullet in the Brain, Tobias Wolfe
- Dog Heaven, Stephanie Vaughn
- In The Penal Colony, Kafka
- A Hunger Artist, Kafka
- The Blue Cross, Chesterton
- Sorrow Acre, Isak Dinesen
- The Old Chevalier, Isak Dinesen
- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
- Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff
- Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville
- Emergency, Denis Johnson
- The Case of Isobe - Shusaku Endo
- The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Hemingway
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway
- A Clean Well Lighted Place, Hemingway
- Death of a Traveling Salesman, Eudora Welty
- Powerhouse, EudoraWelty
- Barn Burning, Faulkner
- A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor
- Rain, W. Somerset Maugham
- How Much Land Does a Man Need, Tolstoy
- Last Night James Salter
- Break it Down, Lydia Davis
- Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Babel
- Misery, Anton Chekhov
Where can you find the richest troves containing worthwhile shorts? I consume short stories during my daily commute via podcast apps provided by The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Public Radio International. Audible also features a significant collection of shorts but if your budget won't tolerate their monthly fees, Librivox, (read entirely by volunteers), contains an ample supply. Other commendable repositories include apps like Paragraph, and Storyville, who are capitalizing on the expansive layout of tablets, perfect for the genre.
Short stories have the mesmerizing capacity to alter your entire worldview, they evoke our deepest emotions: compassion, anger, and sympathy. One almost audibly gasps or physically shrinks from the spotlight a short story throws on its subject, the intensity and variegated hues, blinding. Moreover, once you emerge from the carefully crafted narrative of a short story, you reenter your own world with a keener insight, an altered judgment of the world around you and perhaps even your place in it. Frank O'Connor, in his famous criticism The Lonely Voice sums up every man's response to most short pieces of fiction, citing Golgol:
"...and from that day forth everything was as it were, changed and appeared in a different light to him."