There’s a big fat problem with short stories – their titles are forgettable.
Last year, I read hundreds of brilliant short stories and I can tell you when and where they were published, what they’re about, and why you should read them. But I can’t tell you what they’re called. Not a slippery syllable. Nada.
And that’s embarrassing.
So, instead of recommending a fantastic piece of fiction, and helping all those involved in these marvels, I keep quiet. You see, it’s a bit like going to a house party where you meet someone who knocks you for six and, later on in the week, you think about asking them on a date. Unfortunately, thanks to that not-so-marvellous memory machine, you can’t recall their name and even though this seems like the most unimportant thing about them (you’re much more concerned with substance), this simple lapse undermines the sincerity you might otherwise have. In short, it doesn’t give a good impression and so the opportunity passes by.
I’ve observed this problem with short stories a number of times at readings, writing classes, lectures, collection launches, and in conversation; it’s particularly true when it comes to newer authors and their collections. We can all rattle off short stories by Joyce, Mansefield, Hemingway, Carver, Cheever, and so on, but their titles are repeated over and over again; they’ve made the journey from the short term to the long term memory. The titles of contemporary short stories, on the other hand, are read once, largely forgotten, and left behind in the black hole of obscurity.
Why do we forget short story titles?
Let’s grab this idea of dating and run with it a little. When comparing short stories and novels, it’s clear the latter have a distinct advantage.
Reading a novel is similar to going on a dinner date with one person. You’ve probably had time to admire the cover and found it to your liking. Now you’ve got the next few hours to see whether it will live up to expectations. Maybe it goes well, maybe it doesn’t – either way you’ve had enough time to really connect the name/title to the person/book. You’ll possibly see each other again, talk about it with friends, and think about it during the day and at night.
Contrastingly, short stories tend to stick together in groups, in collections and anthologies. We’re talking speed dating here. Perhaps you’ve got ten minutes with each person/story – but there are so many to remember it’s hard to keep track of who is who and what’s what. Maybe you liked some of them and didn’t like others. There was one which said something about painting and another was about some ghost in the attic… You liked the second one you came across – Amy something. Or was is Amanda?
We forget the titles of short stories for the same reasons we forget the names of people.
Partly, it’s down to the-next-in-line effect, being distracted by thoughts of the past and the future. While reading a collection, our attention is still haunted by the last short story but also (perhaps due to the nature of the form’s brevity) acutely aware of the next, fast-approaching narrative.
Secondly, titles appear relatively unimportant. As readers, we want to rip through the narrative, not linger on what often seems like surface detail.
Our short-term ‘working’ memory is also to blame; it’s incredibly porous – information slips in and out with little retention unless we focus and transfer details to the long-term memory. Usually, however, a short story title is given scant attention and by the time we’re half way through the next story the last title is long gone.
Why should we remember short story titles?
Short stories are important. If the form is to be taken seriously then the names of short stories should be taken equally seriously. Rightly or wrongly, forgetting the name of short fiction titles undermines the significance of the form.
Sales. If you bring a short story title into discussion, it’s much more likely to be recorded and later researched. If this happens, the collection/anthology/title has a greater chance of being bought, and this benefits everyone within the literary community.
Widening the canon. In talking about the authors and the titles of short fiction, we bring new names into common conversation and in so doing, we potentially open the canon to greater expansion. This in turn demonstrates the versatility of the form and also increases the number of readers and writers who may contemplate dipping into short stories.
It encourages writers. Many authors, both smaller names and the giants of fiction, began with short stories and continued with them throughout their careers. The same is true today (Ian McEwan and George Saunders spring to mind). Even though the market is far removed from the monetary wellspring it once was, by talking about short stories we demonstrate the fertile ground the short form offers budding writers.
What I’m driving at here is the enormous potential for a positive, self-perpetuating cycle of short story propagation. By remembering the titles of short stories, we’re more likely to discuss them, write them, read them, purchase them, and publish them.
If you think short stories are important and deserve the attention we give to other forms of literature, then do give a thought – or two – to short story titles.
How can we remember short story titles?
Repetition: often when beginning a short story, I’ll read the title a couple of times over.
Association: once I’ve read the entire story and if I’ve enjoyed it, I’ll go back to the title and associatively connect aspects of the narrative with the title. I’ll also fold over a corner of the title page; after finishing the collection or anthology, I’ll skim back over the short stories I liked, using the titles as a springboard for plot recall.
A journal: every time I come across a great piece, I’ll note down the author, the title, the collection or platform, give a brief summary of the plot, and also any defining features. This has become an invaluable record, helped me remember countless short stories, as well as highlighting some interesting trends in my reading preferences.
Some concluding remarks…
It’s difficult not to agree with commentators who argue that the short story is still far from having another renaissance. We’re a long way from the financial indulgence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the short story market remains an undeniably tough one with numerous influences contributing to the hardness of the nut which needs cracking.
We should strive for the trinity of writing, reading, and discussion of contemporary short fiction, and for this we must work at remembering short story titles. Only then might we truly kick-start the positive cycle of propagation that could lead to the genuine renaissance of the short story form in all its deserved glory.
Rupert Dastur is a writer and editor. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story. He later established TSS with the aim of furthering discussion, interest, and development of the form. He has supported several short story projects and anthologies and his own work is in / forthcoming in The Flash Fiction Review, Field of Words, A3 Review, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016, and the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2016.