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  • January 1st, 2020

HAVE I GOT A STORY FOR YOU!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Any book publisher will tell you that short story collections do not sell, so save your time and money by not submitting them for publication. Try telling that to James Michener whose short story collection “Tales From the South Pacific” became a bestseller, a Broadway musical, a movie, and a staple of repertory theaters across the country. Try telling it to Stephen King who, when he is not writing 600 page epic novels, turns his hand to short stories and often sees them turn into major motion pictures.

 

A short story is a novel squeezed into a few pages and is as different from a novel as a diamond is from a chunk of road gravel. The novelist can sprawl all over the place, travel down by ways and alleys, and explore ideas that occur incidental to the theme of the story the author is exploring. Conversely, the short story writer needs to hew to the line and avoid being sidetracked. Every word counts.

 

Short stories offer the reader a sharp, sometimes disconcerting, glimpse at life. Sometimes they leave the reader hanging (“The Lady or the Tiger”), letting the reader imagine his or her own finale. Sometimes, a short story contains possible hidden themes, offering different interpretations, depending on what the reader decides they mean. Often a story is just that— a good old tale told by a good storyteller where there are no hidden messages and the intent of the writer is nothing more ambitious than entertaining.

 

I grew up when popular magazines proliferated (even delivered Saturday Evening Posts for a few weeks when I wasn’t much bigger than the bag I carried, filled with that week’s issue. The exploits of Crunch and Des, Tugboat Annie, Horatio Hornblower, and the many other short story characters in the Post entertained and inspired me to want to write short stories.

 

I took a class in short story writing in college, taught by William Peden, a wonderful teacher who overlooked my clumsy and obvious attempt to write like J. D. Salinger, and who encouraged me to keep at it, graciously ignoring the fact that I was not and never will be J. D. Salinger.

 

I actually once published a short story in a literary magazine—one of those known-by-very-few-readers  magazines where you don’t get any money but you can leave the free copies which function as pay for your story on your coffee table, hoping that visitors will notice them and be suitably impressed by your literary accomplishment.

 

My first short story collection “Grandma and the Buck Deer” is directly inspired by the short stories of Jean Shepherd, who I heard telling them on late-night radio when I was in high school. He made a fortune when his stories were adapted into the wonderful movie “A Christmas Story” (narrated by him). Perhaps the same will happen to me. What the heck, there’s still time—after all, I’m only 85 years old.

 

Some of the best American writers ever specialized in short stories, too many to pick out individuals. Raymond Carver is noteworthy for wonderful slice of life tales, sometimes as short as a page or two. For fantasy writing, no one beats Ray Bradbury. Right up there with him are Roald Dahl and John Collier.

 

I cherish every story ever written by Thomas McGuane. His storytelling is straightforward and perhaps a reflection of his long experience as a screenwriter. His many novels and nonfiction are well worth your reading time, but his short stories stand out and make him one of the best of the contemporary short fiction creators.

 

Among the literary writers, the Nick Adams short stories of Ernest Hemingway are fine reads especially for anyone who hunts and fishes. William Faulkner took time out from his chronicles of Mississippi family drama to write “The Bear” and some other notable short stories, collected as a book titled “Go Down Moses”. Currently I am reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”, a collection of mostly funny, sometimes fantastic tales. I’m alternating between that and E. L. Doctorow’s “Sweet Land Stories”.

 

Perhaps my favorite short story writer is Jim Harrison who died a year or so ago. He wrote voluminous poems as well as a number of memorable novels, but basically became the master of the novella— a cross between a very long short story and a very short novel—usually about 100 pages. Every one of them is a gem of wonderful writing. One “Legends of the Fall” became a movie and cemented Harrison’s reputation as one of the best writers in American history. His writing, like that of his close friend Tom McGuane, falls easily on the ear and the brain.

 

Here’s a few of my favorite short stories to spice up your new year.

 

A Sound of Thunder: of all Ray Bradbury’s many short stories this is the most memorable to me. And a word of advice— watch where you step or you might be dooming your relatives many generations in the future. If nothing else this story will give you a much greater appreciation of butterflies, which have enough problems in the present without considering what may have happened millions of years ago.

 

 

Broke back Mountain: Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story garnered eight Academy award nominations as a movie adaptation and probably should’ve won best picture. The story chronicled a gay relationship between two seasonal cowboys in the West. Annie Proulx writes sentences that are so perfect that after more than a half-century of writing for a living, they make me want to throw my word processor in the lake and get a job as a greeter at Walmart

 

A good man is hard to find: readers have been analyzing the theme and the underlying symbolism of the story ever since Flannery O’Connor wrote it. My take is that it dramatically illustrates the underlying truth of the statement “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Make of it what you will—good versus evil, God versus the devil, but remember that O’Connor herself was under a death sentence from disease and perhaps this is her bitter recognition of that.  A wonderful writer whom I don’t much like because her many layered stories confuse me and make me think, a dangerous affliction.

 

Why I Live at the P.O.: Eudora Welty is the finest of the Southern short story writers.  This delightful excursion into rural Mississippi is a combination of Hee Haw’s Culhane family and the dysfunctional family skits on the Carol Burnett show. I’ll swear I’ve known some of these people and Ms. Welty captures them for us memorably.

 

The Road to Tinkhamtown: if there is an aging grouse hunter who ever has followed an aging dog and who can read this story without puddling up, that man is not me—and I don’t want to hunt with him. Corey Ford’s short story in “Field and Stream” magazine is the greatest hunting story ever written.

 

The Open Window: H.H. Munro who wrote as Saki made it well worth five or 10 minutes of your time when you’re feeling grumpy and mad at the world to read this story and be delighted by the inventiveness of a irresistibly clever young con girl. We can only hope she grows up to be the Democratic Speaker of the House.

 

The Secret life of Walter Mitty: there’s a little bit of Mr. Mitty in everyone with any imagination. Every kid with a basketball imagines himself making the winning shot at the buzzer. I comfort myself often at night imagining myself invisible so I can invent endless ways to humiliate Donald Trump, including the use of a fart machine while he is debating with Democrat opponents in front of a national audience and close to a sensitive microphone. Thanks to James Thurber for bringing me and millions of other wannabes to life in fiction.

 

The Ransom of Red Chief: probably the inspiration for Dennis the Menace and the Home Alone movies, O. Henry’s 1907 “Saturday Evening Post” story is about the kidnapping of a 10-year-old boy by two men, who he drives absolutely nuts with his hyperactive antics to the point where they pay his father to take him back. Good story to read before you go on a long road trip with the kids in the back of the station wagon. It appeared as a segment in a movie titled “O. Henry’s Full House” starring Oscar Levant and Fred Allen as the two bedeviled kidnappers.

 

An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge: Ambrose Bierce survived the battle of Bull Run in the Civil War only to vanish years later amid revolutionary turmoil in Mexico but he left us with this eerie short story and also his definition of “I have a very good brain” Donald Trump   In his “Devil’s Dictionary” Bierce said: “Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.” Bierce’s Civil War story magnificently survived him. I hope we can do the same with Trump and his inappropriately self-described “very good brain”.

 

The Telltale Heart: it’s tough to pick a single Edgar Allen Poe story since there are so many but this one and the Cask of Amontillado stick out in my memory. Poe’s life was nearly as chaotic as his short stories, which probably explains why his imagination created some of the most memorable and spooky short fiction ever.

 

The most dangerous game: a short story, sometimes called the most popular short story ever written, with the same general theme as The Lady or the Tiger. Published in 1924 in “Collier’s” magazine it’s a good example that, at one time, the country benefited from short stories in popular magazines like “Colliers”, the “Saturday Evening Post”, and many others. Sadly, those magazines largely are gone and reader exposure to popular short stories has gone with them. F. Scott Fitzgerald, known as a literary novelist, made a good living off writing Post stories.

 

The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: I’m not sure we would be celebrating Mark Twain as America’s most famous writer today if it weren’t for this short story that jumpstarted (inadvertent pun) his long career. It’s a tall tale from his early days as a newspaperman in the Frontier West. Of course, you might say, that much of Twain’s stories were tall tales, amplified to novel length, but this one is pure campfire storytelling and is as much fun to read today as it was when I was a kid— and as it was when Twain wrote it more than a century ago.

 

The body: Stephen King occasionally takes time out from writing nuclear bomb size novels to write short stories. This one, Tom Sawyer for the 21st century, became the movie “Stand by Me”, which made a star of young River Phoenix who then proceeded to kill himself with drugs while still a teenager. It was, I guess, a fitting Stephen King like ending. In my mind, King is at his best when writing short stories.

 

Big Blonde: Dorothy Parker’s award-winning short story in the “New Yorker” was a sharp contrast to the usual picture of the wild, untamed life of the 1920s flapper— the party loving subject of the story is the antithesis of Zelda Fitzgerald, F Scott’s wife and the real life antithesis to Parker’s unhappy heroine. Zelda wound up a tragic mental case and Parker herself often was unhappy and far from the happy-go-lucky image she portrayed, much like the character in this most famous example of her short fiction. Once, my wife and I stayed at the Algonquin Hotel which hosted the famous Algonquin Round Table where Parker and other 1920s writers and famous characters gathered.   I hoped to soak up the atmosphere there— but aside from the hotel’s ever present lobby cat (probably not the same one from the 1920s) there was no ambience.

 

This is just a handful of short stories that have stuck in my memory for years. I have a deep and abiding love for short fiction and as far as those many publishers who say that short fiction doesn’t sell and therefore they won’t risk publishing it, I say the hell with them and the horse they rode in on.

 

Check out some of these writers and you might find that instead of burying yourself in a long novel you might also become an aficionado of the short story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Paul F. Vang

    January 1st, 2020 at 2:46 pm

    Reply

    I’ll add a couple authors to your list of masters of the short story.

    The late Roald Dahl was one of the short story greats, even though he’s more often remembered for his children’s stories.

    Another Brit, Jeffrey Archer, is my current favorite short story writer, though he gets more attention to his multi-volume epic novels.

    • joelvance

      January 3rd, 2020 at 6:30 am

      Reply

      I listed roald dahl. Didn’t archer get involved in a scandal some years back? Anyway happy reading and an even happier New Year, my good friend.

  2. CJ

    January 3rd, 2020 at 9:55 am

    Reply



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