Much has been said and written about our diminishing collective attention span. From what I hear, no one under 40 can be expected to follow a train of thought for longer than a 24 minute episode of television, and any movie that goes over two hours draws dire predictions – from studio-heads and film writers – of impending apathy from the general public.
Now, I want to be sure to stress that this idea is categorically untrue. Most of us are in the habit of bingeing more than 10, or even 20 hours of a show in a single weekend [for instance: the 360,000 households who watched all 9 episodes of Stranger Things 2 the day it was released]. And some of the best loved and most successful films of the last 20 years haven’t suffered from longer run times. I’m not talking about so-called high culture films like Scorsese’s The Irishman, the length of which was remarked on often. I’m talking about the fun films everyone went to see: The Dark Knight, Avatar, and Avengers: Infinity War all clocked in at 2.5 hours or longer. That’s also true of four of the Harry Potter films, with two more just missing that mark by less than ten minutes. All three Lord of the Rings movies were three hours long, the final installment hitting the 3:21 mark. Avengers: Endgame was three hours long, and loads of people went to see it multiple times! In other words, reports of the death of the American attention span are greatly exaggerated.
Still, true or not, the powers that be believe it to be so. So why haven’t book publishers worked harder to get people interested in short stories? The medium seems tailor-made for such a world as they believe to inhabit. I guess I’ll just need to make the attempt on their behalf.
Consider this my public service announcement: The short story is an amazing medium, and you should be reading more of them. Here are a few recommendations to get you started.
The science fiction pick – Exhalation by Ted Chiang
“Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”
If you’ve got any love for speculative fiction, you need to read Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. Each of Chiang’s stories is built on the foundation of a great sci-fi question or idea. The curiosity at the core of his work leads to poignant moments of beauty, horror, wonder, warning, and possibility. Many sci-fi writers with the same M.O. are knocked for weak characters and plot, but Chiang’s exploration of interesting science fiction ideas is overflowing with empathy. There’s always a human heart beating at the center of his stories.
Also: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury,
The fantasy pick – The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
“Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.”
The Language of Thorns is a book of fairy tales told within Bardugo’s Grishaverse, a fantasy world she has built and fleshed out to great effect in six other books [the Shadow and Bone Trilogy (aka The Grisha Trilogy), the Six of Crows Duology, and King of Scars. I wrote about the first book here.]
Her writing is imaginative and rich, and her wonderful style shifts perfectly to suit whatever particular story she’s telling. The Language of Thorns stands on its own just fine, but you should absolutely go back to the beginning and read Shadow and Bone.
Bonus quote from the book, because it’s my life – “Some people are born with a piece of night inside, and that hollow place can never be filled – not with all the good food or sunshine in the world. That emptiness cannot be banished, and so some days we wake with the feeling of the wind blowing through, and we must simply endure it as the boy did.”
Also: The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke, Unnatural Creatures, ed. by Neil Gaiman
The horror pick – Full Throttle by Joe Hill
“The past is always close, so close you can sing along with it, anytime you like.”
Son of the wildly prolific Stephen King, Joe Hill is great, and his short stories are especially terrific. [If you haven’t read Locke & Key, the graphic novels he wrote with Gabriel Rodriguez, you absolutely should – even if you’ve maybe already watched the Netflix adaptation.]
Similar to those in Exhalation, each story is powered by a fun conceit, and a very human soul. There’s a secret, magical, Narnia-style doorway, but instead of children, it’s used by rich white men to hunt magical creatures on the other side. There’s a man who falls asleep on the wrong train and wakes up next to a very civilized, very hungry werewolf. And in a particularly lovely story, a grieving, aimless man takes a job driving a decrepit library bookmobile, only to discover that not all of his patrons are among the living.
Even when the concepts are more straightforward genre tropes — i.e. murderous roadside attractions, or teenagers hunted down by supernatural comeuppance — they’re elevated by his style, and the empathy with which he writes his characters. It all works, because the people populating his stories feel three-dimensional.
Also: Strange Weather, Hill’s book of four short novels.
Don’t forget creative non-fiction. John Hodgman’s Vacationland is absolutely wonderful. Or, even better, listen to him read it via the audiobook.
And you can always go with some all-time classics: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Stories of John Cheever, or Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few.