The Reading of Short Fiction

Short stories are more than just the few dozen pages they occupy. That sounds like a banal platitude, but in some ways I thought of stories as merely “shorter versions of novels.” The 400-page novel takes a few days to complete. A short story, then, takes only a fraction of that time (a mathematically valid statement).

I’ve found these facts confounding. In the past, I would look at the much shorter short story collection and wonder why they don’t tend to sell as well as the novels. Why are the novels the best-sellers, the award-winners? Why do short stories stand in the fringes of readers’ attention and the authors’ well-known works? Shouldn’t, based on length alone, the short story take less time? Shouldn’t readers find short stories more appealing in this increasingly attention-deficient society?

I don’t believe I’m much closer to the answers, but I do think I need to reframe the questions, because my assumptions are ultimately faulty. A collection of 200-something pages takes weeks to complete, compared to days for the novel; it requires more brain activity and emotional sensitivity to fully comprehend, even after several rereads. A short story feels weighty, not in spite of its brevity, but because of it. What is not revealed becomes the driving force for the short story, making readers feel as though it is as complex and interesting as any novel. A short story is denser, and each word takes more time to absorb, like poetry.

For these reasons, I now approach short stories differently. It no longer feels like a serene time in which I come home, exhausted from my daily routines, and collapse in my bed with a good book. Instead, I must prepare myself and make sure I’m mentally capable.


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