Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Short Stories


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The short story form has long suffered from overexposure in bad high-school literature anthologies-including the mandatory 9th-grade read that almost turned us off to the genre forever, O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." One place you won't find an outdated short story shoved down your throat is Oprah's Book Club, which continually snubs the medium. We wouldn't care, except that we recognize-with sadness, regret and exceeding distress-Oprah's role as popular culture's literary queen.

A short story, done right, however, is the most immediately absorbing form of literature. Plunging right in without a prolonged introduction, the short story often begins with the reader feeling one step behind. This makes for more suspense than an 11:55 p.m. Yogurt Park run. The short story-like Durant Avenue's beloved fro-yo dispensary-is refreshing. It ignores the conventions that constrict the novel, those that require an author to introduce setting, characters and plot slowly and predictably.

Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, two of our favorite short-story writers, certainly embody this claim. It's the specific style that each writer brings to the carefully selected (and selective) space of diction and discourse that distinguishes him from his pack of M.F.A-bearing colleagues. Both practice simple and sparse writing, which doesn't suffocate the emotion or effect of their characters but enriches them with a quiet dignity. "Dirty realism" isn't a new genre of VH1 reality show but rather a literary movement that highlights the failure of everyday people to articulate the pains and ailments of life through the short story.

Wolff's "The Life of the Body" begins with the pathetic beatdown of a high school English teacher and twists like the mind of its subtly perverted protagonist into an unsettling tale of self-deception and violently unrequited love. Wolff is a master of endings that don't need plot twists or cliffhangers to leave the reader in jaw-hanging awe. Raymond Carver's short story anthology "Cathedral" is packed with such moments, where the characters, as much as the reader, are left attempting to grasp the subtle insanity of what just happened. These stories unfold naturally, narrating scenes and psyches like literary snapshots-with devastating effect.

Charles Bukowski, renowned for his novels and poetry, had a style we think was best suited to the short story. His stories were simple and usually autobiographical, exploring the habitually disgusting exploits of a self-professed "dirty old man." For Bukowski, the short story served as a hilarious diary through which he could relate the sordid observations that would have been left out of a more plot-focused novel. The same is true for sci-fi kings Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, whose short stories seem to capture the same surrealism and tenderness of their overshadowing novels. Whereas Bradbury explores the Martian surface in "The Golden Apples of Sun," Vonnegut stays grounded firmly on Earth in "Welcome to the Monkey House." Both elucidate the beauty of the shortened form: It allows authors to tinker with stylistic and narrative formats, encourages experimentation and changes the way readers think about writers.

If our impassioned cry for a new American love affair with short stories isn't enough, consider this. In the age of sound bytes, Ritalin and Twitter, short stories might be the most accessible way for the next generation of writers, suffering from a chronically short attention span, to climb out of the purgatory of Facebook posts and invest in a more liberating form of writing. Rather than constraining creativity, the short story's limited scope inspires it in both reader and writer-amounting to literary slices of life as appetizing as they are bite-sized.

Resist the Twitter trend with Nick and Derek at [email protected]

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