Monday, May 2, 2011


by Libby Sternberg

Years ago, my sister and I belonged to one of those mail order book clubs, the ones that entice you to join up with offers of "four books for one dollar." From that point on, the club would send monthly fliers announcing their latest offerings, with one special--if you didn't want that book, you had to send in a card saying "no, thanks." Otherwise you'd get it. I ended up with a lot of books this way.

One of the volumes my sister received during her first four-for-a-dollar deal was the collected short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was already a fan, having read The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, and Tender Is the Night. Reading his shorts allowed me to visit his world some more. I devoured them. I think I read them all within one dreamy adolescent summer. "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" stayed with me for a long time. Others blended into one another in memory, leaving behind a warm sense of enjoyment. Rarely did they disappoint.

As I grew older, I almost lost touch with short stories. My reading time was spent with novels and nonfiction. Then, at various times, we ended up subscribing to the few mainstream magazines that still carried short fiction -- The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker -- and I once again began to read shorts.

Let me amend that: I tried to. Regularly, I'd force myself to stick with the stories in these magazines to the bitter end. And it was often a "bitter" end in that I had not enjoyed the flavor of the story by the time I was done. Rarely did I remember them at all--not even the sense of them, of what they'd been trying to say or where they were set or who the characters were, let alone what the overall story arc contained. As to prose that sang--it often fell flat to this reader's ear.

Two exceptions stand out. One was a short story by Amy Tan. It happened to be a chapter from her debut novel The Joy Luck Club, which I made sure to buy when it was released.

The other was a haunting tale of a woman in California waiting for her husband after he went off to war in the Pacific during the 1940s. I just remembered the story, not its title or author.

That story stayed with me for a long time--the poetry in its prose affected me deeply, and even if I couldn't remember the precise plot points, its mood and tone left an impression.

Years later, I became a fan of the novelist Mark Helprin. His novels Soldier of the Great War and Memoir from Antproof Case, as well as his novella Ellis Island, left me reeling from encountering such a talent. As a Christmas gift around that time, my son presented me with a signed copy of Helprin's short story collection The Pacific. I read it eagerly. When I came to the final eponymous story, I met an old friend--"The Pacific" was the story of the war bride I'd read years ago in The Atlantic Magazine! I revisited this treasure with great joy, marveling at its power to move me once again.

Stories such as "The Pacific" are hard to forget but also hard to find. At this stage of my life, I don't like to waste time. So I have to admit to passing over a lot of short fiction I encounter in the few magazines that still publish it. Their short fiction doesn't pull me in. It doesn't speak to me. It doesn't...tell a story. At least not ones I want to hear.

I'm not sure when this happened--when short stories stopped being a draw, not just for me, but for millions of others. Now, shorts live mostly in literary journals published by colleges and universities and are read by those who teach or study there (see my rant about "academic fiction" below). Yet there used to be a time when a writer like Fitzgerald made most of his money from writing and selling short stories. They were a commercial success, in other words, as well as an artistic one.

It bothers me that short stories have "evolved' to a point where they are not well-read or well-appreciated now. Their inclusion in magazines mostly devoted to nonfiction allowed those nonfiction readers to sample fiction, something many of them might not do outside the short story milieu. I believe in the transformative power of fiction, in its ability to challenge readers, to open minds to new ideas and viewpoints. It's distressing to think other readers might have given up on short fiction, too.

This is one of the reasons that Istoria Books is dedicating its resources to a series of shorts. Called Lunch Reads, this collection will feature two stories in each volume for 99 cents . E-publishing is the perfect platform for shorts. There are no word-count restrictions--no short is too long or too brief for inclusion.

We kicked off the series with mysteries. First, there is a suspense tale by Jenny Milchman paired with a "cozy" mystery by yours truly in Volume I.

In Volume 2, Gary Alexander (Istoria has published his literary novel, Dragon Lady) provides two humorous pieces that I like to think of as O. Henry meets The Twilight Zone--ironic twists abound, as well as loopy characters. Gary's roots are in mystery writing, so he's a natural at weaving such tales.

And in Volume 3, it's humor again with Ellen Holzman's clever longish short, a murder mystery told entirely in letters to the editor of a small town newspaper, coupled with a short short by Edmund de Jesus. Anyone who's lived in a small town will recognize the characters in Holzman's witty story and admire her storytelling talent as she eventually reveals the murderer to the reader through artful characterization and precicse plotting. De Jesus' short is the cherry on top--a well-written tale taking place within a grocery story, with a surprise ending that colors the rest of the piece.

These stories are meant to be light entertainments, something you can read on your lunch hour. But we hope they become addictive. We hope that readers will find in them the same sense of pleasure and joy that readers of short stories used to find when encountering good stories, well-told, in magazines of yesteryear.

Although we're starting with mystery, we will branch out into other areas in the near future. That includes "literary" fiction, as well.

With Lunch Reads, we want to lure skeptical readers back to embracing the short story once again. And we hope to become the place for talented writers crafting these tales to place their works.

Give Lunch Reads a try--for 99 cents, can you really go wrong?

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