We live in a world where we can't be bothered to spell out "too long, didn't read" (TLDR) for something too long. And now, with short-story master Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize, there's really no better time to come out and admit that you really prefer short stories.
As far as I can remember, in school I was always taught that the longer the book, the bigger the bragging rights. In my elementary school, we had this odd reading/testing system where you were required to read a book to get points, and a certain number of points would get you an "A." The books worth the most points were always the longest. That's why the nerds would always choose Gone With the Wind, and sit on points that would last them until the next grading period.
In adulthood, there's always that friend who is reading the next hot novel and can't wait to tell you they are — it's the whole reason Goodreads, a social network site where people
brag share what page they're on in their current book, exists.
For book nerds and literary wonks, Munro's win was a finally moment — a moment that recognized that short stories are every bit as good as their longer cousins. "I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel," Munro said upon receiving her award. Earlier in her career, Munro had long struggled to get recognized as a serious writer and to get short stories recognized as a serious form of story-telling, the University of Texas explains.
Our ADHD-ish lives are helping this recognition along too. In addition to TLDR disclaimers, we're also a people who have developed strategies to avoid watching commercials during hour-long shows, and rely on brief text messages instead of phone calls. Smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices have all equaled the playing field, as our sister site Quartz explains.
That's led to things like the success of Amazon's Kindle Singles, and enticed authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Amy Tan, and Ann Patchett to write singles of their own. And it's inspired authors to write shorter. "Last year collections like Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her drew both critical praise and good sales," The New York Times wrote earlier this year. And that circles back to Munro — if Englander, Diaz, Palahnhuik, and Tan are writing short stories and collections of short stories, it all validates Munro's work even more.
But what's in it for readers? Well, we all have our own reading styles and quirks. But a lot of us are promiscuous readers, hopping from one topic to another with no real fidelity toward one story or another (see: Twitter), nor is there any windup. Short stories fit seamlessly into this reading pattern.
And they also fit into this millennial problem known as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). That story about the colonic not funny enough? How about skip over to that one story about the lady who fell in love with Tony Robbins, the famed motivational speaker? There's always the possibility of a better, shorter, more poignant short story— sometimes, it's within the same book.
Steve Millhauser explained the beauty of the short story for The New York Times in 2008:
The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.
Where to Start:
Publishers Weekly's 10 Best Short Story Collections
Colonic by: Emily Haworth-Booth
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by: Ted Chiang