A new Beaufort-based website aims to bring the short story back to the forefront of American culture.
Do your remember the first short story that really knocked your socks off? For me, it was ‘The Lottery,’ by Shirley Jackson. I think I was in middle school – maybe 7th grade? – and I still get a shiver up my spine when I recall that mysterious black box (a ‘symbol’, or was it a ‘metaphor’?), and that shocker of an ending that sneaks up on you… despite the author’s masterful use of “character’ and ‘foreshadowing’. Later, I would discover the creepy pleasures of Edgar Allen Poe… the gentle irony of O. Henry… the beautiful freaks of Flannery O’Connor… There was something so elegant – so intensely immediate – about this art form. If a novel was a big, tasty layer cake to be savored over time, the short story was a square of rich, bittersweet chocolate. The perfect literary snack.
But then I stopped eating – er, reading – them. After grad school, my English Major days behind me, I turned in my tattered Norton anthologies and the short story became a thing of my past. According to publishing industry statistics, I was not alone. Over the last few decades, the short story has seen a major decline in popularity.
Enter Beaufort’s Tim Johnston, who has just launched Short Story America, a website that hopes to rescue this neglected literary form, bringing it back into the mainstream of American culture. The former headmaster of Beaufort Academy, a talented short story writer himself, recently talked to me about his new venture.
ME: Tim, when was the ‘golden age’ of the short story… and what’s changed since then?
TJ: The heyday of the short story started in the 19th century with Washington Irving (‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’) and ran through the first three quarters of the 20th century. Throughout those generations, short story writers were like rock stars! They were such a prime source of entertainment before the complete dominance of television.”
ME: Okay, but now that we’ve got television, and so many other entertainment forms – not to mention actual rock stars – why bring back the short story? What’s the point?
TJ: Television, computers, and hand-held gadgets have made it very easy to access passive entertainment. But reading stories is active, participative entertainment. Readers are challenged to use their imagination – and their souls – in applying a story to their own situation or their society.
The short story didn’t lose popularity because authors forgot how to write stories that entertain, move and matter. Rather, modern technology, over time, has made it seem like harder work to read a short story than, say, to follow gossip entertainment or trade text messages in shorthand. So the short story has been shoved to the cultural sidewalk while, in the words of a long-time literary editor, a dumbed-down culture of faddism “goose steps down Main Street.” That’s quite a scary analogy, but it truly is a threat to our society when people don’t engage in meaningful reading from adolescence all the way through old age.
ME: Now you’re speaking my language, Tim. I’ve written extensively in this column about our dumbed-down, faddish culture, the instant gratification generation, and other contemporary bogeymen. In this light, it occurs to me that your project is about more than just reviving a fading art form… it’s about cultural renewal. How do you draw scattered, distracted young people – with miniscule attention spans – away from twittering, text messaging and superficial celebrity gossip, toward more meaningful engagement with the world of ideas? It seems to me that you start “small,” right? You challenge them, but you don’t ask them to bite off more than they can chew. As I mentioned earlier, a good short story is the perfect literary snack (albeit a “nutritious” one).
TJ: Exactly. Edgar Allan Poe described the short story as having a “singular effect” on the reader, one that can be profound and lasting. The best short stories do three things, in my view, and they do them in one sitting: They entertain, move and matter to the thinking individual who reads them and incorporates them into his character, even subconsciously. Good short stories have no waste, no fluff, no filler. I love that. Such can be said very rarely about novels, and I love novels!
ME: And who knows? A kid who starts out reading at Short Story America might like what he sees and be inspired to check out longer literary forms. And shorter forms, too, like poetry.
So how does it “work”? You have twin daughters at home and you have to make a living. What’s your business plan?
TJ: Our plan is that the company’s revenue will come from tasteful advertising, the sale of audio short stories, and Kindle downloads. (We plan to help the local economy by producing our audio stories here in the Beaufort area.) Another source of revenue will be institutional memberships. Schools will pay membership dues of just $100 per year, which will enable their faculty to access lesson plans, sample essay questions, etc. at the site Educators section. School memberships will also enable the students at member schools to enter the annual Short Story America national short story writing contests, which will be held at the Middle School, High School, College and Graduate School levels. Each school’s champion will move to the national finals, and will be published in our Student Short Story Library for the rest of the world to discover the young emerging talent at our nation’s schools. This will be really exciting in every school community.
ME: So then, as a former headmaster, Short Story America is kind of a natural progression for you, career-wise, right?
TJ: This progression feels as natural to me as the connection between teaching and writing. I love the fact that a teacher can simply direct students to go to the website, read an assigned story, write in their journals, and (if the teacher wishes) print the story for use in class discussion, highlighting, margin notes, etc., without having to mark up an expensive book. Short stories are the perfect literature about which to write analytical essays, because students can read them in one sitting, and teachers can move directly into discussion and then on into the nitty-gritty of student writing: the analytical essay. Colleges complain (and rightly so) that today’s freshmen are not arriving on campus with the ability to write meaningful, persuasive and mechanically correct analytical essays. Increasing the use of short stories in the classroom is an ideal way of increasing both the frequency of essay-writing and the enjoyment of literature on the part of students. As Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Every student can become a good writer, if he/she reads every day, and is led to enjoyable, meaningful reading by teachers and parents from early ages forward.
ME: Your former teaching colleague Sarah Turocy is your co-editor at Short Story America. She no longer lives in Beaufort. How did she get involved?
TJ: I’ve held Sarah in the highest regard ever since hiring her back in 2004 to teach English and be the founding director of the theater program at BA. I guess you could say we’re both dreamers and optimists, and as career English teachers, we both embraced the vision of a much-needed addition to our culture: a worldwide publishing project which would aid in returning the short story to mainstream culture as reading entertainment for everyone, and to assist teachers with resources for students as readers, thinkers and writers.
ME: You gained readers from 13 countries and 37 US states in your first week online. You’re drawing lots of comments on your discussion boards – people talking about stories from your “Classics Library” as well as the “Story of the Week,” which is always something new, chosen by the editors from a quickly growing pile of submissions.
I’m still thinking about your haunting story “Friday Afternoon,” which was featured as the first Story of the Week. One reader called it a “short story masterpiece… right up there with ‘The Lottery’ and ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’” Another reader was “completely blown away,” and compared you to her favorite writer, Stephen King. I’m curious about your literary influences, Tim. What are some of your favorite short stories?
TJ: ‘Winter Dreams’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald… ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver… ‘The Short Life of Francis Macomber’ by Ernest Hemmingway… ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’… by Flannery O’Connor, just to name a few. If you had the space, I could name at least 50 short stories that are absolutely indispensable, and I would still only be scratching the surface of this valuable part of living well by reading well.
ME: Thanks so much, Tim. I know all my readers join me in wishing you great luck in this new endeavor. A good website is hard to find
Become a member of Short Story America by visiting www.shortstoryamerica.com