Thursday, May 5, 2011

Toss the Confetti! Release the Doves! It's National Short Story Month!!*

Before too many more days tick away on the calendar, I want to remind everyone that May has been unofficially dubbed National Short Story Month.

We have a National Soft Pretzel Month, a National Bird-Feeding Month, and a National Stamp Collecting Month, so why not an entire four weeks dedicated to the art of short fiction?

I've always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends--good friends, well-read, intelligent, reasonable friends--who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, "Oh, I don't do short stories."  It's said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, "I don't do meat."  When I come back with, "Why not?" the answers are always vague and insubstantial.  I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don't like short stories.  I suspect they're afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school.  Quite possibly involving nuns, rulers and knuckles.

It's true that the short story is the most commonly assigned form of literature deployed by high school English teachers.  They're quick, they're easy, they're....short.  For every To Kill a Mockbird there are five "Hills Like White Elephants" in the classroom.  It makes me wonder if we're ruining future short-story enthusiasts at the age when they're less capable of finding the subtleties and nuances of stories than they are in easier-to-grasp novels.  By their nature, short stories compress language to its densest gem-like state (second only to poetry); novels sprawl and emphasize plot and are generally more accessible to younger readers.  I could be wrong, but I think the average 15-year-old would rather read The Catcher in the Rye than "Young Goodman Brown."  (I'm talking about 15-year-olds with an overall lack of interest in reading; for teen bookworms like me, I gobbled up Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" with a spoon.)

Where is this tangent leading?  How did I get here?  Oh yeah, short-story haters.  A puzzling demographic of our literary society.  I suspect they've already stopped reading this post, so I can say whatever I want about them.  They're stuffy, waddle around with a stick in their asses, and are so rigid in their routines and tastes that they'd never try eating at anything exotic as a Persian restaurant that served goat kebabs.  There, I've said it.  I feel better.

Enough soapbox and on to Short Story Month...

The origins are a little murky.  I first heard of the concept in 2007 when Dan Wickett devoted a month of postings to the short story at The Emerging Writers Network.  Four years earlier, Larry Dark, director of The Story Prize, floated the idea when he told The Pennsylvania Gazette: “I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done.”  He preached a similar sermon to Poets & Writers magazine in 2005: “I feel like the short story is almost in the same position as poetry.  It needs a lot of cultural advocacy because it’s certainly not commercially strong.”

Dark is referring, of course, to National Poetry Month which is still in our rear-view mirror.  Since designating April as National Poetry Month in 1986, the nonprofit Academy of American Poets has enlisted a variety of government agencies and officials, educational leaders, publishers, sponsors, poets, and arts organizations to help with the festivities each year in April.  The short story deserves at least as much time in the spotlight.  In 2009, at The Story Prize blog, Dark wrote: "It's going to take more than a little noise to make it happen. For NSSM to come about and have any impact, it will need to have a strong organization behind it, a real concerted and nationally coordinated effort, and buy-in from bookstores, schools, and libraries, not to mention authors and publishers."

Dark got the conversation rolling but Dan Wickett was the one to put the rubber on the road on May 1, 2007 when he wrote at the Emerging Writers Network: "Now we move into SHORT STORY MONTH. Quite possibly my personal favorite form of writing to read. It might not make sense, but to me an incredible story, one nearly flawless, tops a fantastic novel. Even the best novels I've read have a slow spot somewhere within--a spot not at the same incredible level as the rest of the work. This doesn't happen, really can't happen, in an incredible short story--there's just no room for bits of filler."  Wickett recently discussed the origins of NSSM at the Fiction Writers Review blog.

Since 2007, National Short Story Month has been gaining momentum, primarily among bloggers.  It would be great to see bookstores climb on board** with their support: offering discounts on selected collections during the month, holding in-store read-a-thons, talking up the idea of National Short Story Month to local media.  Someday soon, maybe we'll start seeing posters in airports and subway terminals promoting NSSM (a champion boxer holding up a copy of Knockemstiff and a tagline "Knock 'em dead with a short story," for instance).

In the meantime, you can join the festivities at these websites:

Start with the Godfather of Short Story Month,*** the Emerging Writers Network.  Wickett has already highlighted stories by Victor LaValle, Steven Gillis, Erika Dreifus, Roxane Gay, and others.  He's an earnest champion of under-read books and has brought dozens of new writers to my attention.

Matt Bell's blog where, in addition to his regular posts, he's ambitiously taking on 31 stories from print magazines in 31 days.

That Shakespearean Rag is joining in that 31-in-31 marathon.

The Fiction Writers Review, which has so many different blog events planned for NSSM, it's almost like walking into an Old Country Buffet and being overwhelmed by all that the steam tables have to offer.

Necessary Fiction is embracing the true spirit of NSSM by publishing a complete short story each day.

At Perpetual Folly, Clifford Garstang is building steam by writing about stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Donald Antrim, and Abby Frucht.  The month is still young, so expect more perpetual goodness to come from the blog.

There are plenty of other NSSM hotspots in the blog-o-sphere--including a Facebook page.  Most of the sites mentioned above have links to places where you can find more celebration of short fiction.

As for me...

I don't have the time and energy of the other bloggers, but I will be doing my part on a smaller scale.  I've set aside the week of May 16th for daily giveaways of short story collections.  Along with the giveaways, I've invited each of the authors to contribute their thoughts about the short story--why they matter, why they'll survive, and why readers should never dismiss them with a wave of the hand.  Stay tuned for more details....

*And with that, I've exceeded my monthly quota of exclamation points.
**I'd love to know if anyone out there is already doing something to promote NSSM.  Feel free to share in the comments section.
***So dubbed by The Story Prize blog

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