the big short

making the case for short stories

Walking into my dorm room, one of the first things many visitors notice is the collage of New Yorker covers plastered on my wall. While I hail from a country exactly halfway across the world from the the New Yorkers office, reading the magazine became a bit of a high school ritual. After receiving secondhand copies from a friend’s mother, I would carefully remove and collect the covers before moving on to my favorite portion: the short story.

If you love literature as a low-commitment form of escape into another world, short stories allow an experience like no other, granting you access to a complete universe for twenty minutes in between other tasks. You can experience anything from the course of a life to a single, richly imagined moment, all while waiting for an open machine in the laundry room. Through the New Yorker, I am able to sample many more authors than my schedule would allow for if the modern literary landscape consisted only of novels, gaining exposure to the likes of Don DeLillo, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and my favorite short-story author, Alice Munro.

At the same time, short stories leave a lot open to interpretation due to their length. As Ricardo Paglia puts it in his “Theses on the Short Story,” a second, “hidden” story thrives within each of these works. In earlier centuries, this meant the presence of a twist ending, such as the protagonist’s discovery that she has imposed cruel hardships on herself to pay for a cheap trinket in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” This effect is created by weaving elements of the second story in a fragmented manner into descriptions of the fictional world. When the second story is brought to the surface, a  effect is produced. Most Sherlock Holmes stories operate in this manner, bringing readers to the stories week after week.

In our modernist literary world, the second “hidden” story looks very different. Often, the second story is on equal footing with the first, producing a tension between the two that remains unresolved at the narrative’s end and leaves the reader wondering how the work reflects our own world. As Paglia says in his “Theses,” this strategy enriches the experience by allowing the reader “to see, beneath the opaque surface of life, a secret truth.” Almost every Alice Munro story, for instance, ends with the sense of something left unsaid. In “Gravel,” the story of a woman looking back on the drowning of her older sister early in childhood and struggling to remember the events that transpired, the narrative ends with this passage:

“I see what he meant. [Forgetting] really is the right thing to do. But, in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself, as if in triumph, and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.”

A weight of expectation hangs in the air after the story ends, showing us the narrator’s consuming need to be sure of connections in a fragmented past, to cut instability and uncertainty out of her life — a meaning that can apply to all of us, hidden in a ten–page piece of fiction.

While the New Yorker is a well-respected institution, having published established masterpieces like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and newer pieces like Munro’s “Gravel,” it is not without its faults. As Jonathan Franzen points out in an article for the magazine, the New Yorker has been criticized for having “[t]oo many stories about mopey suburbanites. Too many well-off white people. A surfeit of descriptions, a paucity of action. Too much privileging of prose for the sake of prose, too little openness to rougher energies.” The end of many stories in the magazine may also take the second hidden-story concept to new heights, with the result coming off as “either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste.” Subscriptions also do not come cheaply, as most readers are, like the protagonists of the stereotypical New Yorker story, well-off white people. For broke college students looking to gain exposure to new perspectives, the magazine may not be the best investment. Over the last few months, however, I’ve found some options to suit both our wallets and our learning goals.

Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading: Founded in 2009, Electric Literature is committed to moving storytelling to a digital platform and ensuring that it retains a place in our popular culture. Each week, Electric Literature publishes one short story online recommended by an editor, author, or publisher. Since this premise is much like the New Yorker, quality is guaranteed. They’ll even tell you how long it’ll take to read the piece down to the minute.

This week’s story: X by Brian Evenson

HiLoBrow: Founded to bridge and mingle highbrow and lowbrow fiction, HiLoBrow has published original fiction, produced reading lists in funky categories like “Best Radium-Age Scifi” and “Golden Age Fantasy,” and come up with perhaps the best idea yet: reviving that old Victorian money-making scheme of serializing long-forgotten literature. Every few days, HiLoBrow’s serial fiction category uploads a new chapter of some book that has fallen into obscurity. Each new chapter can be read in the time span one would a short story and allows you to keep up with a piece of literature like you would alternative media platforms like the TV show — a method the Washington Post hypothesizes may just save the publishing world.

This week’s text: Victor Bridges’ 1915 detective novel A Rogue by Compulsion

Online Translation Journals: While foreign literature makes up a measly 3% of all books published in the U.S., this is not necessarily true of short stories. Many online journals publish translations of foreign-language short stories, providing a global perspective free of cost. My personal favorite is Asymptote, an online magazine that publishes short fiction, poetry, and drama excerpts in a variety of languages. If you can read in another language, you may also elect to read the piece in its original language on the site. There is also a wealth of sites with a focus on a single language or national literature — my fellow Chinese speakers should consider Paper Republic, which publishes a quarterly digital journal of contemporary Chinese fiction and poetry in translation. As translation is a creative writing project in and of itself, most of the texts selected are personal favorites of the translators and are of a generally high quality.

Or, find your own alternative! Short stories are made to fit into a busy schedule — find a few favorite sites so that your spare moments putting off calc problem sets will always be well spent.