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3am Literature

1. Because I believe the short story is the purest form of what we commonly refer to as storytelling, by which I mean the most intuitive, satisfying, and elegant of our narrative possibilities.

This is to say nothing against novels, memoirs, books of poetry, or plays. Only to argue that the short story comes closest to approximating stories as we encounter them in our real lives, in the bar rooms of this world, around campfires and kitchen tables and, most important, in bed, at night, in those final minutes before we are taken under by dream.

2. Because one afternoon in 1991, I visited the El Paso Library and happened across a book called The Voice of America by Rick DeMarinis and sat down to read a story called "Insulation" and, for the first time in many years, simply lost my grip on the world -- the musty air, the hot drag of summer, the anxious reverberation of my insides -- and slipped into a second, created world.

3. Because when I get to thinking about my favorite authors, I am often compelled to note, almost embarrassedly, that their most memorable work is a collection of stories. And because I think that most other writers would agree with me on this, though maybe not out loud.

I don't care what any prize committee says, for my money Rock Springs is the finest book Richard Ford has ever written. Denis Johnson: Jesus' Son. John Cheever: The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. And so on.

4. Because, like most Americans, I crave variety. I love picking up a book of stories and knowing that I can enter any of a dozen distinct worlds. And because (again, like most Americans) I feel a fierce compulsion to finish things, to see them through, combined with an impatience I would describe, charitably, as perpetual.

5. Because one of the central rules I try to abide in my work is what I call the Poker Buddy Test. Meaning: would the guys at my poker game choose to read what I've been working on? And would they finish it?

Most people in this culture -- like my poker game buddies -- don't read literary fiction. The short story stands as the least intimidating (and therefore most effective) introduction to literature.

As one of them explained it to me, "No offense, Steve, but I read your stuff on the can. They're just about the right length".

None taken.

6. Because back in grad school, during a stretch when I felt desperately lonely, helpless, enraged, when it seemed possible I might never summon the words inside me, someone handed me a copy of Barry Hannah's Airships, and I read the sentence, "I'm going to die from love" and felt for the first time in months that I could breathe. I began to read the book chronically, and each time I wanted to lick the pages. Those stories! All full of death and sex and honest freaks chewing at the end of their tethers. What kind of world was this? Why, in the face of such pain and humiliation, did I want never to leave them?

7. Because I believe that the writing found in short story collections -- the rhythm of the sentences, the precision of the language, the emotional intensity -- is generally superior to that in novels. The reason for this is quite simple: the barrier to market is much higher. You don't get a story collection published unless the writing is vivid enough to compel several otherwise rational minds to make what is by most standards an irrational economic decision.

8. Because novels, by contrast, tend to disappoint me. I would attribute this to the fact that many writers feel pushed into writing novels before they're ready. I can usually tell when I'm reading a novel by a short story writer. The first few chapters sail along on the sheer exuberance of the voice. Then the skein starts to unravel.

I am not finding fault with the novel as a form. There is nothing to equal the cumulative pleasures of say, Howards End, or Pride and Prejudice. But even some of the novels that I love best are uneven works of art. The Adventures of Augie March, for instance, is stunning. And yet, every single time I reach the section where Augie heads down to Mexico with Thea Fenchel and her trained eagle, I find myself skipping ahead.

I never have this experience with a great short story. Every word has earned its way onto the page.

9. Because, in the end, I don't care much for plot. Or, to put it another way, because I view plot, most centrally, as a mechanism by which our heroine is forced to face her deepest fears and desires. This occurs, with the most urgency, in short stories. Every great story fires its characters, and readers, headlong towards the hidden caverns of the heart. All but the essential details are left aside. You know only what is required to feel what you have been waiting to feel.

10. Because, in the end, the short story is the best way I've found to express what all art must: what it means to be human.


Visit Steve Almond's website.

More Steve Almond in 3:AM:
* Interviews 1 and 2.
* Stories: "Spartacus" and "Anthony's Girl".
* Essay: "Pretty Authors Make Graves".

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