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In Praise of the Short Story

By Rebecca Moon Ruark

Photography by Vivian Rubin

These pandemic days feel both interminable and brief all at once. Time drags and flies. And even us rabid readers find that our towering TBRs keep growing taller. Anxiety and stress make it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, and it’s tough to hold a long story in the imagination.

Short story to the rescue.

I mean, who wants to read one more doomsday article or essay. (OK, I read those, too.) But fiction in pandemic times? Yes, please! Anything to distract from real-life 2020.

Why short fiction? Sure, the novel beats out the short story collection—even popular ones—in sales, everywhere. But right now might be a good time to revisit the short form. For escape, sure, and for craft—for those of us who write short fiction—and also, and maybe most importantly, for connection with other readers.

In addition to reading short fiction here at Parhelion, in recent days, I’ve committed to reading at least one published flash fiction piece and retweeting it around the Twittersphere—a little entertainment, illumination, and literary community to start my day. Another important avenue for literary connections while locked down: the online book club. One I belong to recently read a short story collection: Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade, which I highly recommend.

I’m “using” short stories before bed (sleep experts say escapism is better for relaxation than, say, a nonfiction book about the plague). On my beside table right now: short stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, which are often just a handful of pages long. They “escape” me to far-away Finland with its woods and lakes, its terrain of moss and lichens that feels foreign, inviting and refreshing (something like a pandemic antidote).

Of course, many short stories birth novels. Valdez Quade’s story, “The Five Wounds,” inspired her to build on that world for her debut novel, The Five Wounds, which will launch in 2021.

Then there are the movies that have grown out of short stories: plenty by Stephen King. Another semi-recent example is Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” And, there’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired a movie released 86 years later—testament to the lasting power of the short story.

I love a good short story. I love their self-contained quietude. I love the kind of short story where nothing really happens, except an all-important shift in perception or understanding. We readers don’t always need the classical story arc in short fiction. A short story can capture a moment, a day, a year, or many years—and the plot doesn’t need to be tied up with a bow.

Take Raymond Carver’s famous story, “Cathedral,” probably the story that cemented in college my love for American fiction and my desire to try my hand at writing it. It’s often-anthologized, often found within the same American Lit. 101 tomes as classic stories by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and Kate Chopin—and more modern short story masters writing in English, like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Hempel.

Last year, Lit Hub recommended “The 10 Best Short Story Collections of the Decade” and the year before that Esquire recommended some “great literature in small portions” with “15 Short Story Collections Everyone Should Read.”

You know I’m going to drop my recommendation, right here, and plug the stories (and don’t forget poetry and nonfiction) in Parhelion.

Our Halloween issue (no, Halloween never dies around here) features stories from 11 talented writers. (Go on, get your creep on.)

Can’t get enough Parhelion? Check out the Summer 2020 issue…and hang tight for the Fall 2020 issue, coming soon, which promises to be our best yet!

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger. My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank, Sou'wester, Flock literary journal and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. My (nonfiction) articles and profiles appear in university magazines and other nonprofit publications. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I am at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype the literary voices of my fellow native Midwesterners at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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