I recently wrote a short story called "Berlin." Although I spent very little actual time on it, I thought it was a pretty good story and so I decided that I would send it out to a couple of literary journals and see who wanted to publish it. I've gotten back a couple of rejections already, and assume that the other fine publications to whom I've submitted will eventually reject the story as well. It's not, I realize, a very good story. And that's pretty much the case with all of my short stories.
Sure, whenever I have finished one I think it's the greatest thing that I've ever written and I am proud and excited and I want everyone I know (and all the strangers I can round up) to read it. And to congratulate me on my brilliance and insight. And to throw cash at me. I can dream, can't I? Anyway, I finish these stories and then I try to find homes for them and usually I don't. Part of that is perseverance; it's really time-consuming and annoying to submit to literary magazines, who all want exclusive submissions (I ignore that) or want to be told if it's a simultaneous submission (I ignore that, too), and also want 4-6 months on average to decide. Four months? I could be dead by then.
Anyway, I only read a handful of literary magazines on a regular basis, and most of those don't take unsolicited stories so my submissions are mostly to places I don't read. Maybe that's part of the problem, and I'm just pursuing the wrong markets. But I don't think so. I really think that I don't understand the short story and so I don't write them well.
What occurred to me last week while reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, is that when you write a short story, you have to throw yourself into it with the same passion, energy and commitment you use when writing a novel. It can't be something you hastily scribble out in an afternoon if you expect it to be of the same quality as those stories written by people who take the short story seriously. I do not constantly revise and tinker with and otherwise improve my short stories. I dash them off and then give them one revision and then maybe tweak a sentence here or there and then call them done. That's not the way the professional short story writers work.
Which is why I should stick to novels: I will spend years revising, I will rewrite novels from the ground up and I will get to know my novels far better than I will ever get to know one of my 2,000-word stories. I take my novels seriously, far more seriously than I ever take my short stories. Until that changes, I may as well get used to my short stories not finding homes in the handful of literary magazines I read. My stories aren't ready to rub elbows with the stories in those magazines, because I'm not putting in the work those authors are putting in. That's just the way it is and so, while I have fun writing the occasional short story, I don't deserve to have any of them published.
If you write short stories, do you expect them to be as good as (or better than) the published stories you read? Do you labor over them obsessively the way some of us do our novels? If you write both short stories and novels, is there a difference in the amount of work you put into the two (aside from novels simply taking longer to draft because of the length)? Do you take your short stories as seriously as you do your novels?