Essay Review: What Good Is a Story?


“What Good is a Story?”
from the essay collection, Small Wonder (2002)
written by Barbara Kingsolver

I have always wondered why short stories aren’t popular in modern America. We are such busy folks, you’d think we’d jump at the chance to have our literary wisdom served in doses that fit between taking the trash to the curb and waiting for the carpool. We should favor the short story and adore the poem. But we don’t. Short-story collections rarely sell half as well as novels; they are never blockbusters. They are hardly ever even block-denters. . .

This is the start of “What Good Is a Story?”, an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, detailing the three months she spent in 2000 as a guest editor for The Best American Short Stories series. Kingsolver had to read  125 short stories before she could pick the twenty best ones. In her essay, Kingsolver explains those hectic three months, why she loves short stories, and what reading means to her.

On reading during this hectic time,

. . . all of us have to work reading into our busy lives. The best tales can stand up to the challenge-and if anything can, it should be the genre of short fiction. . . If we lived in silent white rooms with no emergencies. . .we probably wouldn’t need fiction to help us explain the inexplicable, the storms at sea and deaths of too-young friends.

On choosing the stories that she did,

With a pile of stories on my lap I sat with this question, early on, and tried to divine for myself why was it that I loved a piece of fiction when I did, and the answer came to me quite clearly; I love it for what it tells me about life. I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never  before had sock me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read.

I don’t know about you, but that is very true for me. I don’t want to read anything predictable or something that I already know. Many of the books I’ve read lately have uncovered to me lives I don’t usually think about. Reading this essay reminded why I picked up this book the very first time. I enjoy Kingsolver’s writing. It’s accessible and tells me something that I knew but couldn’t put into words myself about reading.

I won’t give you any more quotes but if you’ve enjoyed any of Kingsolver’s other works, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this amazing collection of essays. Or if you haven’t read Kingsolver before but enjoy a mixture of the personal and the political, this book may be for you.

Other books you may enjoy:
A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning & Life by Nancy Peacock


About Vasilly

Mother, daughter, sister, college student, bookworm, lover of chocolate and coffee.
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14 Responses to Essay Review: What Good Is a Story?

  1. vivienne says:

    I have to say I very rarely read a short story. I think it is because I like to have a book where I can get my teeth into it. Where I know I can sit down for the evening and have the whole book to enjoy.

  2. Jill says:

    I loved this collection of essays by Kinsolver. Small Wonders is also good. BTW, I love your “new” blog. I finally changed the address in my Google Reader last night so I can read it more often! =)

  3. Frances says:

    Think that many people enjoy the background info and sense of closure often offered by a novel, but chafe at the snapshot offered in a short story. Seems incomplete to them. Perhaps a reflection of readily accessible immediate answers in our society that many do not enjoy the short story as much as Kingsolver and others might expect. Loved these essays.

  4. Pam says:

    Oh, I love Kingsolver but I haven’t read this. Thanks for the quotes.

  5. bermudaonion says:

    I love Barbara Kingsolver’s work and after those quotes and your review, I have to get my hands on a copy of that book!

  6. Vasilly says:

    Vivienne: I rarely read short stories nowadays but I do want to start back, Many people feel the same way you do.

    Jill: Glad you changed URLs. I hope you get more sleep. =)

    Frances: I definitely agree. I don’t want to read a short stories or a book that wraps up all the ends of a story.

    Pam: You’re welcome!

    Bermuda: Yay! I hope you enjoy it.

  7. iliana says:

    Great review! I really like Kingsolver’s books, well the few I’ve read. I’m not much of an essay reader but I think this is one book I definitely need to add to my stacks.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Great post, Natasha. I like short stories, too, but do not read them as often as I would think I would knowing I like them so. I think one reason is that it is hard to get good recommendations on short stories, as, like Kingsolver says, so many do not read them. One reason I am doing the 100 Shots of Short Challenge is to read more short stories. I have a couple of collections, but even these collections leave me feeling blah sometimes because I can’t get into 3 stories in a row. It’s one great story for every 5 duds and that is frustrating.

  9. Joanne says:

    I cannot imagine reading 125 shorts and needing to pick only 20 favorites. I love short stories because of how much an author must have to put into them. I’ve heard writers say that writing a novel is much easier, what with so much space to work with, and I can see that.

  10. JoAnn says:

    I’ve rediscovered short stories this year, and have really enjoyed Kingsolver’s novels. This sounds like the perfect essay collection for me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  11. Carrie K. says:

    I don’t really care for Kingsolver’s fiction, but I liked those quotes, so I think I might give this a try.

  12. Nymeth says:

    “I love it for what it tells me about life. I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had sock me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read.”

    YES! I now want to read this book for this passage alone.

  13. Care says:

    In my very quick off the top of my head opinion… most people (I’m making huge assumptions here) take their idea of what to read just like they do when they look at a menu – the bigger the piece of cake the better! so reading a short story might be one sweet piece of exquisite chocolate but a big thick novel is like a grand tall stack of chocolate cake with the high frosting. the whole bigger is better so a short story just can’t be good.
    I could be wrong…

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