20th June has been proclaimed International Short Story Day – by whom, I’m not quite sure, but the thinking is good: this is the shortest night or shortest day of the year, depending on your hemisphere. UK publisher Comma Press, who emailed me about the day and the celebrations planned, is a passionate champion of the form, which sadly is less than popular with more commercial publishers.
I’m not sure why that is, because the short story really does have it all. It fuses poetry and narrative, can be plot, character or language driven, suspenseful, meditative, funny, sad or all of them at once. In return for fifteen minutes of your best attention, it will crack open a single moment, or offer up an entire life. You can listen to it in its entirety, or absorb it from the page in a single sitting, then carry it whole in your heart.
From the writing point of view, too, short stories come highly recommended. You don’t have to plan. It’s possible to begin with an image, a line, a snatch of dialogue, a character, a feeling – and find the story it belongs to. And the turnaround is so much faster: a novel might take a year or more to draft, but you can have a story down in week, or even a day, then put it aside to read and revise in some slack time three or six months hence. It’s possible to perfect it, and on the way, you can share it easily, ask for an opinion: no-one minds test-reading a few thousand words, and if it ends up in your bottom drawer, that’s all right, too.
Short fiction was once very commercial, and it may be so again. But meanwhile, let’s celebrate. There are so many wonderful short stories: Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lap Dog”, of course. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” “Where Are You Going, Where have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, Italo Calvino’s “The Spiral”. A contemporary short story I recently read and loved was Caroline Adderson’s “Poppycock”, published in the Canadian journal TNQ. The one I loved before that was from the same magazine: “Dialogues of Departure”, by Stephen Heighton. I could go on, and on… But do you have an all time favourite? What is the last short story you read and loved?
Or is it a while since you read or listened to short fiction? If you have fifteen minutes to spare, Comma Press offers some wonderful author readings posted in celebration of International Short Story Day. Long may it continue.