The Ready Feast

This post originally appeared on a terrific review site, Booklover Book Reviews

Why do most readers avoid short stories? I’ve posed this question to several people, who have offered a small range of reasons. Some say that short stories end too abruptly, or that they often have no resolution at all. Others mention a lack of plot, claiming that writers of this genre are more concerned with style than story. But the most common complaint is that short stories are simply too short. When it comes to reading material, people favor long-term investments and will not consider other options, even with the possibility of greater returns. “I make friends with the characters,” someone told me yesterday. “I want them to stick around.”

I find this both odd and poignant, basing the value of something on how long it keeps us company. You don’t see this more-is-better mentality applied to other art forms. A symphony does not trump a song, nor is a portrait less important than a mural, or a statue more impressive than a figurine. And poetry—no one accuses poems of being too short. I wish I could write poetry; the audience is small but ferociously loyal.

I understand the preference for novels only in theory. Being a writer, maybe my own characters edge out the competition, but I don’t think of characters as company—entertainers, yes;  companions, no. I ask other things of the people I meet in books. They must be credible, first of all, and informative, and interesting. No matter how scant the time I spend with them, if the author has succeeded, if the characters are well done, I will remember them, and their troubles, all my life.

Novels run the opposite risk, often drowning in their own excess. Sometimes, reading a novel, I get the feeling that the author is figuring things out bit by bit and I am wading through his thoughts, bumping into the clutter. While I’ve read many wonderful novels, I am in greater awe of the spare clean rooms, the potent distillation, of a good short story. There is a bounty of them, from the deliciously chilling tales of Edgar Allen Poe to the devastating brilliance of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. At least once a year I reread Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” just to remind myself what a writer is capable of, and I am no less stunned by the short works of Jean Thompson, Antonya Nelson, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Alice Munro and so many others.

Despite these masters of the genre, the popularity of short stories has been declining for decades, and rare is the author who can make a living off them. Who would guess that in this age of texts and tweets, the short form would be struggling for attention? Maybe this techno world we live in is just the point. People need to escape, to lose themselves in more tantalizing realms, in which case, a short story can be the quickest route, the ideal restorative, the ready feast.

In their heyday, short stories appeared every month in popular magazines. Later they were found only in published collections or literary journals. Today, with increasing frequency, they are popping up in e-readers. Now that readers have an instant and inexpensive way to access short stories, I am hoping the genre will enjoy a renaissance, that people will set aside their fat beach reads, at least occasionally, and try something more slimming. Maybe even delicious.

Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

2 thoughts on “The Ready Feast

  1. You are absolutely right Jean. I was never a big reader of short stories, however, I found that having the time to finish a large novel was becoming impossible or taking months to accomplish. The beauty with short stories is I can take a15 minute break from my daily routine and escape into adventure, mystery, romance and nature, forget everything and everyone around me, guilt free, and finish the story. It’s a win, win situation. Thank you for bringing short stories to the forefront.

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