I have been thinking about word count as I write the introduction to my short story collection (Just Another Day in Paradise, coming next month). I'm titling the essay "Long Story Short" and I have been thinking about how you only hear that phrase when it's way too late to make a long story short and the speaker has tried the patience of his or her listeners.
At Dark Valentine, we capped the word count at 5000 and promptly made several exceptions for stories we thought were exceptional. Beginning with the winter issue, though, we're going to be sticklers. I know, I know, I know. A story takes as long as it takes, but very, very few stories justify a word length of more than 5000 words. For example, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is only 3773 words. Frank Stockton's classic tale, "The Lady or the Tiger?" is 2747 words long. Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" comes in at 2811. Two of O. Henry's best-loved stories, "The Gift of the Magi" (2163) and "The Ransom of Red Chief" (4372) were comfortably under 5000 words.
Virginia Woolf's "A Haunted House" is only 710 words long. James Joyce's short story "Araby" is only 2399 words long. Come on, if James Joyce--the most wordstruck writer in English can write a short story that comes in at under 3000 words, there's no excuse to not write economically.
Of course, there are exceptions. Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" is worth every single word of its 8426 length. D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner" (6015) and Jack London's "To Build a Fire" (7176) are masterpieces.
If you're curious about the word count of the best short stories ever, there's a site that breaks it down for you: Classic Short Stories Bibliography. Worth spending a little time there because they have clickable links to the stories themselves.