If the novel is our culture’s favorite literary form, upon which we keep all our desiccated literary laurels, if the novel is, say, our Jaime Lannister, then the short story is our very own Tyrion: the disdain and little brother, the perennial underdog. But what an underdog. Give a short story a dozen pages and it can break hearts bones vanities and cages. And in the right hands there’s more old in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form. It’s precisely this exhilarating atomic compound of economy + power that has entranced readers and practitioners alike for generations, and also explains why the story continues to attract our finest writers.~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016, available online
First thought: It seems smaller.
I checked page counts. The last page number of the last story: 288. Last year, it was 351. The year before, 325, then 325, 321, 322, 387, 314, 323. I wonder if that means something, if TC Boyle and, especially Richard Russo just happen to prefer stories that run a few pages longer, if Junot Diaz likes his stories particularly lean, or if it was something completely unrelated, like fonts, margins, introductions (I still remember Richard Russo’s introduction to BASS 2010, an Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote on the purpose of short stories: “To entertain, and to instruct”), etc.
I’m not worried. It’s not the size of the story in the read, it’s the size of the read in the story. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t the page count, it’s the impact.
And of course, I started thinking about stories: how the reading group at my library emphatically declared they did NOT want to read any short story collections or anthologies, how “everybody” knows the only people who read short stories are writers and students, how so many people, like Junot Diaz, are nevertheless captivated by the job short fiction does and how it does it.
I’ve been taking some moocs in ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and one of the things I noticed is the preponderance of stories told to illustrate a point or convey a concept. Zhuangzi in particular liked to use stories, about the Butcher Ding, the Carpenter and the Oak Tree, the gourd that grew too much, his own butterfly dream. Illustrative stories aren’t unique to the ancient Chinese, of course: the Bible is full of stories. Genesis is a collection of interrelated short stories; Jesus told parables regularly. The epics of Sumeria and Greece depended on embedding stories within a longer narrative to keep the energy up, or just to prolong the recitation. Stories decorate our oldest artefacts and remains. Nor are stories relics from antiquity: the cautionary tale, the dinner table anecdote, the opening of most public speeches, stories all.
Maybe it’s my Caribbean immigrant multiplicity, the incommensurate distances between the worlds I and have it, but my life has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else. Thing is, I’m all these strange pieces that don’t assemble into anything remotely coherent.… I guess some of us have crossed too many worlds and lived too many lives for unity.~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016
A good short story can ground the reader. It can give hope, solace, comfort – things that are more crucial than ever.~ Heidi Pitlor, foreword, BASS 2016
I already see a lot in this volume that interests me, just from the table of contents. I’ve always liked Andrea Barrett’s science-history; Karen Russell often makes me smile. I just recently discovered Ted Chiang when one of my mooc friends recommended “Story of your Life” (a movie version is scheduled for release in November), so I’m looking forward to reading more from him.
But most of the names are unfamiliar: new friends just waiting to be made, points of view I may not have seen before. The titles are intriguing, hinting at directions that interest me. Díaz has always been a champion of the voice that’s drowned out, the immigrant, the non-white, the other. Given current events, I can’t think of a better guest editor for this year’s volume. I wonder if that’s coincidence, or if it was planned that way.
Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me – at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016
So stop sneering at stories, and enjoy them. This might be a good place to start. If nothing else, they’re likely to be on the short side.