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Imprints Introduction

In Praise of the Short Story

Posted 9/20/2000

If we had any sense...

Americans would love short stories. We all complain about being short on time. We prefer our TV shows in half-hour segments. We favor french fries over the whole potato. So why do we line up to buy full-length novels whenever the new John Grisham or Danielle Steel hits the shelves?

Because we still think of short fiction as something to be consumed in an English class, not in our leisure time. We remember all too well when our high school teacher made us read Shirley Jacksonís "The Lottery" and delighted in our horror at the unexpected ending.

Short stories didnít always have such a small audience. The form began as popular fiction. giants such as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald originally penned some of their future classics for mass-market magazines. In recent decades, however, short stories have been thought of by the reading public more as something to be encountered in elite literary journals or, more commonly, in a classroom.

And yet, the short-story form has not deserted its audience--it is still the peopleís fiction. Good short tales have all the immediacy of real life-perhaps even greater immediacy, because thereís no room for anything extraneous. The best ones are all about entertaining the reader, not giving the writer room to show off. The action is compressed, and the endings have a greater punch (or letdown, in some cases) than in longer works of fiction. The form puts heavy demands on the writer to make every word count, to make every action resonate with multiple meanings. Itís an extraordinary test of skill--only the best fiction writers can make short stories work. And when collected in a single volume, these tales can provide several emotional roller coasters for a reader for the price of a single novel.

In hopes, then, of getting a little love for one of literatureís least appreciated art forms, consider this yearís Imprints to be a guide to rediscovering short fiction. We present the past, present, and future of the form. We see what new technology and shifting regional identities have meant for the short story. We present a highly arbitrary list of the 10 best examples of the form, as chosen by City Paperís highly opinionated literary staffers and contributors. We even stack the deck by bringing Baltimore into the argument, proving that the short story is a part of our cityís history.

This issue was a labor of love--emphasis on "labor." Imprints was edited by Eileen Murphy; Mahinder Kingra, eileen Murphy, John Sewell, and Lillian Thayer wrote the stories; Michael Anft contributed the timeline of Baltimoreís short-story history that appears throughout. Cover concept courtesy Gina Coffman. illustrations by tom chalkley, Brian Larossa, tony millionaire, and smell of steve inc. And as always, the Enoch Pratt Free Library proved an invaluable resource. By the way, youíll find the Prattís extensive short-story collection in its Fiction department. Itís a good place to start rediscovering the good things that come in small packages.

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