By the time I wrote my first short story, at the age of 23, I had written five unpublished novels. What I couldn’t figure out until then was how to complete a story in fewer than several hundred pages, for once I began making things up, one thing led to another—one set of events, or characters, led to more events, more characters—up one path and down another: to detours and dead ends and turnabouts, and to characters and incidents that, when I started out, had not, as far as I (consciously) knew, existed. A novel gave me the sheer space I needed to be able to tell a story.
Now, a half-century later, when a fourth collection of my stories, You Are My Heart, is being published, I notice that the stories I’ve written generally take up more space in time—often a half dozen decades of its characters’ lives—than my novels, which usually occupy only a few days or weeks.
During the years I taught writing to undergraduate and graduate students, most writers, I found, worked in an opposite direction: they began by writing stories, and worked their way toward novels; it was as if they believed that in order to write novels they had first to serve apprenticeships in shorter fictional forms. Not at all, I’d suggest, for the short story is as different from the novel as, say, an oil painting is from a marble sculpture. Just as some artists excel and/or are more at home in one form of visual art than another, so too with writers: some notions simply arrive as stories, and some as novels. Many wonderful writers—Isaac Babel, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, among others—never wrote a novel, and the most exceptional work by writers who have worked in both forms (e.g., John Cheever, Henry James, Jim Shepard,William Trevor) has often been the short story.
When I started out writing stories, in addition to literary quarterlies and the annual Best American and O. Henry anthologies, there were many large-circulation magazines that regularly published fiction: The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Playboy, Esquire, Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Collier’s, McCall’s,Vanity Fair, Yankee, Mademoiselle, etc. Now, of our large-circulation magazines, only The New Yorker publishes a story in every issue. Most Americans are still brought up, through elementary school, high school, and college, on short stories, however, so that one wonders where, once they are done with formal schooling, unless they subscribe to literary quarterlies or to The New Yorker, they will ever again, in any regular way, come across short fiction.
Some promising answers: new online sources of short stories (Narrative, Guernica), magazines that are publishing stories for the first time (Commonweal, Columbia University Alumni Magazine), new and adventurous venues for stories (One Story, Tin House, Black Clock), and an abundance of new, often annual short story anthologies (New Stories from the South, The Year’s Best Science Fiction , The New Granta Book of the American Short Story). My own sense—faith?—is that though literary forms change—some fade, others thrive—the love of story remains.