This post was originally published on the blog of The Missouri Review in advance of May, which is National Short Story Month.
It's May, according to the calendar at least, and that means it is National Short Story Month. If you’re wondering how it’s decided that April is National Poetry Month and June is National Novella Month and November is National Novel Writing Month … well, I don’t know either. Drop me a line and tell me. Or don’t. I’d rather imagine there is some secret cabal that determines these things and makes pronouncements to the rabid masses through coded signals broadcast on MSNBC. Like listening to Alice Cooper record backwards, but, different!
I’m sure that I read short stories when I was in junior high and high school. Short stories are great for teachers to assign because they are, roughly, twenty five pages so even a student like me, who was much more interested in basketball than schoolwork, should be able to read them and say something useful. But I have no memory of reading a short story as a teenager. I vaguely remember reading short work by Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and probably Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Prize Stories (or who on earth is this O’Henry chap …) didn’t exist to me. Though, frankly, I’d have a hard time telling you what novels I read in high school, too. I wasn’t exactly an honor roll student, you know?
College is when I discovered short stories. My junior year, I decided to major in English, and started taking literature and creative writing classes and along with novels that I do remember, I was assigned and studied short stories. There were two collections in particular that I remember: Best American Short Stories 1997 and American Short Story Masterpieces.
The guest editor of BASS 1997 was Annie Proulx. My copy is heavily marked, with unreadable marginalia, underlined sentences and check marks indicating which stories I’ve read and which I had not. Unlike recent versions of BASS, this edition isn’t organized alphabetically by last name but split into four categories: Manners and Right Behavior, Identifying the Stranger, Perceived Social Values, and Rites of Passage. I’m particularly thrilled by the modifiers here: “right” behavior and “perceived” social values. What exactly does that mean, and how are these stories going to challenge my belief in these behaviors and values? And Proulx’s introduction is precise and direct:
The short story is a difficult literary form, demanding more attention to control and balance than the novel. It is the choice of most beginning writers, attracted to is brevity, its apparent friendliness (a deception) to slender themes. … It is a subtle form that challenges the reader to hold the page against what he or she knows of life.
Every day this month, a different writer will post on our blog about a short story. That’s all we’re asking of our contributors this month: pick a story, talk about it. We just want to see what happens, give the writers a venue, and get fired up about the story selected.
Maybe it will be about the best short story, or memorable short story, or The Worst Hemingway Short Story I Ever Read, or … well, whatever it is the writer wants to say about it. We don’t know if we’re going to get a quick “Hey, you should read this!” or 3,,000 words on an obscure Kay Ryan tale. Either way, we’re excited to share these stories, whether a famous classic or a hidden gem, with you this month.