In June 2004, I searched for 7 Eccles Street in Dublin. I never found it. I didn’t find it because it’s no longer there, the victim of nuns who extended a maternity hospital. I looked for the address because James Joyce made it famous in Ulysses, and Ulysses made me feel like fiction is alive. I read Ulysses because I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because I had already read “Araby”–one of Joyce’s short stories from his collection Dubliners, and his only short story to be widely anthologized. If there’s one piece of Joyce’s writing that a non-literary people have read, it’s probably “Araby.” It’s short; it’s accessible; it’s ubiquitous.
The short story is indispensable as a stepping stone for writers too. It’s a form of its own that stands alone without having to lead to a novel, sure–don’t get me wrong–but for writers who write in both forms, it’s usually the short story that comes to the surface before the novel. It’s a way to get really good at capturing a mood or a moment. It’s decorating a room instead of a house–nearly immediate gratification.
Joyce’s works got longer as he got older, which I think is a beautiful transition. But the stories got him there; they flung him clear to Finnegans Wake, just as a high-school reading of “Araby” eventually sent me across the Atlantic searching for an address that held incalculable meaning for me: a three-storey Georgian torn down and replaced, but kept alive by perpetuating tiny off-shoot stories all its own.