I love short stories. My favorite, and it is a total cliche, is A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Hemingway. It is beautiful and succinct. It helped me understand why I want to be a writer. Then there is A&P by Updike, which I read at age fifteen and found in it a character I could eminently relate to.
And thus my love of short stories was born. They are sketches, portraits, paintings, or scenes of characters in situations that define them in a particular moment or place in time. The best do not try to aspire to be a mini-novel nor do they force the reader to press on through multiple boring bits (no piece of writing should) to get to the meat and heart of the story and its emotion.
Chris Offutt, an excellent essayist and short story writer, advised that all writers should simply cut the first third of any story they write because more than likely it is crap. It is the writing fumbling for the narrative or trying to show off.
In today's Slate there is a story by Laura Miller where she talks about a new collection by Helen Oyeyemi. At the beginning she declares:
"For a reader who wants most of all to get lost in a book, the difficulty of reading short story collections is that every several pages she and the author must dissolve the world they’ve summoned up together and start anew. Fictional beginnings are always an uphill climb, requiring a push from the reader until her imagination meshes with the words and then the words fall away and the reading coasts along on pure momentum. Even when a short story achieves that frictionless delight—and not many do—the glide doesn’t last long. Soon the end arrives, and then the climbing commences again."
My first thought is that Miller is reading way too many bad stories and that way too many bad stories are being published. I blame the MFA-ization of short story writing and literary journals for this sorry state because I couldn't agree more that an overwhelming majority of short stories are tedious and chore-like to get through the opening--sometimes paragraphs long--to find if there is anything there. Then comes the disappointment that in fact the writer hasn't given the reader anything other than sentences and paragraphs that score well in an MFA classroom. in short, they haven't lived the blues or much of anything else, so they can't sing the blues. Either that, or they are lost in a world of fabulous sentences without regard to story.
Something similar can be seen in Jazz. Jazz was created from the bottom up. It came from the black experience and found its voice in clubs and dives where the musicians were allowed to be musicians and express themselves as listeners danced, drank, fought, and lived. Within all of this came incredible musicians and melodies and improvisation that defied stodgy musical convention for decades. Then Jazz went into academia and it lost much of its heart. There are still great Jazz musicians out there, but it lost something when, like classical, it was co-opted by music schools. I imagine Rap will see a similar fate before too long.
The same for short stories. They were the Jazz of writing. They were improvisational, beautiful, gritty, challenging, transportative, they let us see ourselves in them or they told us an unknown or uncommon truth.
All short stories are not bad. You don't have to go back in time to find people who are writing good stories. And there is a place for the MFA world, but it should be diminished and put in its proper perspective. Otherwise, short stories (and the journals that publish them) will continue to die a slow death.