When I was in the eighth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Dale, noticed I was bored in study hall and gave me a short story to read: "A Piece of Steak" by Jack London.
A light went on in my 13-year old brain.
I read Jack London, and bought an old collection of O. Henry. At sixteen, I read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." I briefly dipped into Chekhov.
Then I got into college and discovered short fiction. Short stories are stories that are short, I found out. Short fiction is more like a work of art. It's usually about relationships. It often concerns a woman thinking about wrong choices, or broken loves. Or something shocking. You know, grown-up stuff that's very significant and symbolic.
The payoff from this type of story, I discovered, was something some people called an "epiphany," a moment in the story where you realize some kind of truth or make some kind of connection between disparate things.
Much of it was just dreadful, but apparently, it was literary.
Many years and much maturity later, I still don't care much for short fiction. But I have gotten back into Jack London.
There is something appealing about reading a story-- that is, a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, where things happen, and there's a real conclusion. Example: London's dogsled race story, "A Daughter of the Aurora," where two men compete for the hand of a fur-trapper's daughter, the men (and the reader) not realizing till the end that the daughter has already pre-engineered the outcome.
Another example: The New Yorker recently published a short story called "Demeter." That pricked up my Breakfast with Pandora ears. The mother in the story is, of course, named Demeter. The daughter is not named Persephone, but her father started calling her "Perry Mason" early on in life (for reasons unknown) and so her name is Perry. The father's name is Hank, corresponding to Hades. Most of the tale is an interior monologue about the woman-- how her marriage went wrong, how she has to split custody time, like the mythical Demeter, with Perry's father.
Then there's a part where she drops off Perry for the long stay with Hank; goes swimming in a pool; there's a thunderstorm, and an epiphany. Briefly I was thinking that someone would get hit by lightning, and Demeter would have to do CPR, or make a moral choice. But no, nothing so dramatic.
Readers are now paying for and consuming more and more short stories online and on their mobile devices. They read on the subway, or on a lunch break, or whenever they have a spare moment and an I-Phone. It seems to me that short stories may sell the best for this type of reader. Short fiction takes a quality of attention that is hard to cultivate in the dizzying pace of our every days, and it is often unsatisfying, in not having a clear and obvious emotional payoff.
But you never know.
2013 will be a year of e-short stories for me. Soon I will publish my first Borschland short story for the Kindle, and more will follow.
And I've got company. A writing partner, Lyn, is preparing a collection of short stories for e-publication. Another partner, Bob Mustin, has a collection to be published by a small publishing house. I have not previewed any of these yet, so I don't know whether they're short stories by my definition, or short fiction. But they are excellent writers, so it's going to be fun to find out.