This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Steve Almond

Editor's note: Following up on last week's column on the difficulties of publishing and marketing first novels, MobyLives turns this week to another form that has similarly suffered in the conglomerate marketplace: Short stories. Regular contributor Steve Almond has a new collection coming out next month, so we asked him why he chose the form.

22 March 2005 — 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, invented 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. Barry Hannah: Airships. Best Denis Johnson: Jesus' Son. Cheever: The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. Lorrie Moore: Birds of America. Hemingway: the Nick Adams stories. And while I cannot claim to have read enough of Joyce Carol Oates's oeuvre to offer a fair assessment, I would cite the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as one of the best pieces of literature produced in the 20th century.

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 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 for story collections, because they make so little profit. 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 (often their standards) an irrational economic decision.

7. Because novels, by contrast, often disappoint me. I would attribute this to the fact that many writers feel pushed into writing novels before they're ready. (I certainly was.) Who does this pushing? Agents mostly, though they are only aping the mandates of the publishing industry. 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, Howard's 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.

8. 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.

Steve Almond is the author of two collections of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, and The Evil B.B. Chow, which will be published in April. Excerpts are available at

©2005 Steve Almond

Previous column:
THE DEATH OF FIRST FICTION . . . In a guest column, Ig Publishing's Robert Lasner describes the growing difficulty in publishing and promoting debut novels — and the growing need to keep publishing them.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.