Wednesday, May 03, 2006



Supposedly the short story is down on the list of what’s popular to read these days, far behind, in order, nonfiction and then novels. I find this baffling. Once upon a time, about a million years ago or so, short stories were extremely popular. Short story writers were the superstars of their day. I heard yesterday from a reliable source that Ernest Hemingway was once paid $50,000 for a single story. This day deserves a renaissance.

I am hereby making it my personal mission to make the short story catch fire in the popular zeitgeist. In a country where people once paid money for a pet rock, I believe this is not out of the question. My motive is not simply to make a decent living. I’d be happy with $50,000 for at least two stories. Ha. My motive is to get people to read some great stuff that’s not getting read.

Part of what makes me insane about this, putting aside that I am completely passionate about the form, both reading and writing it, is that it makes no sense. You hear people say that they don’t read, or they prefer to read novels because they don’t have time. Um. Okay, the thing about short stories? They’re short. You read one, you take anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour, yes, there are longer short stories but even those will for the most part consume no more time than the local news or a bad movie, and you will have, optimally, all or even any one of the following which is good enough for me:

1) a feeling, or multiples thereof
2) a chuckle, a guffaw, uncontrollable laughter or combinations thereof
3) a thought, or multiples thereof
4) a new or even slightly new perspective on the world
5) a new or renewed sense of connection to the world, and/or the people in it
6) brain stimulation, good for prevention of Alzheimer’s and dementia and longer lasting than Sudoku
7) (worst case scenario) pure entertainment

And I’d like to add that we all get enough news all day every day everywhere, we’ve all seen every episode of Seinfeld and the Simpsons enough times to give it up a few evenings a week, and I’d like to say that these are examples of good shows, so think about one show you watch that’s total crap, like I dunno, that inane show with the suitcases and the money, that’s a whole hour of crap that you could be reading some great short story that would rock your world. Why wouldn’t you want that? Don’t say escape. You can escape while you sleep. Or you can even do both. Let’s say you watch the suitcase show and also some reality show featuring Flava Flav and a Brady. Pick one, and let one go in favor of a short story.

Okay so here is where I’m going to start. I’d start with my own book, but the paperback doesn’t come out for another month, so I’ll hold off bothering you about that until then. What you will do is you will buy and read George Saunders new book of short stories, IN PERSUASION NATION. On the cover is a nice photograph of a man stopping to smell a flower. The very cover expresses my worldview, so you can only imagine what might be inside, except you can’t, since you probably haven’t read George Saunders, and even if you have, you still can’t, because only Saunders can, that’s what makes him him.

You will tell me that you have done so in the comment box. There are twelve stories in this book. This comes out to three stories a week. You will sacrifice three mindless hours of your life for this, and don’t even try to tell me they’re not there. I know what you do and I know it because I do it too. You will report back here on June 1 for discussion, or even before if you like. You do not have to be my friend. You only have to like to read. And you will link this to many and several people who you believe could be convinced of my theory that the short story is due for a Travolta-level comeback minus that weird Scientology movie.

It makes no sense to me that everyone knows who Paris Hilton is but everyone doesn’t know who George Saunders is. Because Paris Hilton? SHE DOESN’T DO ANYTHING. AND NEITHER DO THOSE DAMN SUITCASES.


jackie said...

Is this one of these "all action no talk" things on which I should not even dream of commenting until I've read the damn book already? (I say that more for my own tendency toward talking about my eleventy-billion item long to-do list. You know, instead of actually ticking off a few items.)

Either way, you do make a compelling argument in support of the short story.

carolyn said...

what about those of us who don't read that many short stories precisely because they are SHORT... :)

Betsy said...

Really? I think you're in a small group. Most Americans seem to have the attention span of a pinhead.

carolyn said...

yeah there's never enough for me, i'm the one ending each story going "well, what happened next? did he kill her? did they get married? what's their kid named? WHERE IS THE REST OF THE STORY!?!?!"

but you know, that's just me. :)

Betsy said...

Ok, Carolyn, I hear that, but trust me - Saunders will answer those questions for you. And don't tell anyone but some of his short stories are kind of long. But anyway look at it like this - one story ends - but there's another right behind it!

teo said...

jes' so we're clear...who is this T.C. you are calling out by initial?

teo said...

(and i am afraid to say this aloud, but i must, even if very quietly, but i like the suitcases, which are perfect in that one can do a multitude of other things and still be mindlessly entertained by the television, because you are right that the suitcases don't really do anything, but when it's on and i start watching i am in trouble, and this concerns me and i don't know why, but it is true, and i am very sorry about that)

Betsy said...

Who is TC? Hint: Couches/crazy/glib.
Not TCB.

That's so funny about the suitcases. I can dig that - I did watch it once and there is that - what will they do factor that keeps you tuned in until "just after the next commercial" - but there's nothing to it!!!! Go toward the Saunders!

smussyolay said...

i've only watched the suitcase show for about 15 minutes once. that's horrid. i hate it. it makes me panicky like 'press your luck' used to. the host of that show just died, btw.

however, i will watch a flavor flav/brady show. but i also like to read and do so. i just read that david sedaris put together anthology of short stories that benefited one of the reading places (i'm falling short know. the ones dave eggers started) and i was totally inspired to read/write short stories again.

i realized yet again that while i like to *read* the novel, i definitely am more suited to *write* the short story. and there definitely is that unfulfilled feeling sometimes, like almost reaching an orgasm and then not being able to, but i guess i have to say, it's still pretty great to be having sex and being with someone fantastic, even if it doesn't go all the way to fruition.

and i also found that those stories made a real impact on me. they left me thinking and wondering and feeling things. big. and that was pretty cool.

sorry. that was rambly. so, i will do my best to get this book.

smussyolay said...

p.s. i don't like to read and watch celebreality tv at the same time. i like to participate in both activities. like i like culture and sports as well.

Felipepathos said...

Hi, I'm Chirstina's roomate. I'd love to pick up the book and institute a proper book club. We could meet at my place (just an idea). Uh... I agree with everything that you said about short stories.

Betsy said...

Hi Christina's roommate! I've already got one offline book club and judging by how infrequently we meet, I think one is as much as I can be in - but you should definitely do it!!! Book clubs are great. One reason I did this was so people not necessarily in Chicago could participate.

Vinnissimo said...

Wouldn’t it be great if you woke up early one morning, downloaded a short story for a dollar, enjoyed it – were enriched by it, and got inspired. An hour later you wrote a short story yourself, uploaded it, it automatically linked to the story you previously bought or similar topics, and within an hour you started receiving a fair percentage of the dollars that bought your fresh writing to others You’d be “up” money by the end of the day and everybody wins.

iStories?, insta-publishing, a la cart paid blogging. What ever your personal mission is Betsty – you go!

Angela said...

As a lover and writer of short stories (yet to be published) I am so on-board with what you're doing! And I'll be seeing George here next week in LA at Skylight Books. Everyone, hurry and run to buy this book. Thanks Elizabeth for suggesting this--I hope others follow your lead:)

Betsy said...

Right on, Angela! Right now we have about a dozen on board so I'm psyched!!!

Dean said...

Betsy, you are da bomb, as the kids say. I'm going to pick up Saunder's book (I hope it's available in Canada) (oh, it is!) and report back by June 1 like an obedient foot soldier in the War to Restore the Short.

Dean said...

BTW: what the hell is the suitcase show?

Betsy said...

Dean - excellent!
The suitcase show is called Deal or No Deal, and if you don't have it up there - you're better off.