Short Story Woes

1320820619If there is one form of fiction to which I’ve never really taken it is the short story.  I feel very guilty about this, probably because so many people whose opinion I respect clearly believe that it is the ultimate form of storytelling, demanding the ability to distil the essence of human experience into just a very few pages. And, because I feel so guilty, I make frequent resolutions aimed at correcting this obviously sorry state of affairs; resolutions which clearly I just as frequently break. So, here we are, at the beginning of another new year, and lo and behold I am about to make just such another resolution. What, you hadn’t realised it was new year?  Look, having spent over six decades in education in one form or another, my new year begins in September. January 1st passes me by as just another day in the calendar. September 1st is when it all happens and that means making all sorts of promises to myself about cleaning up my act, one way or another. This year, that includes the short story.

Of course, I haven’t managed to avoid the short story altogether. As an undergraduate  I studied a module on Katherine Mansfield and actually remember having quite a pleasant summer reading her entire output. Mind you, I enjoyed her letters and journals much more. Now those are genres to which I do frequently return.  And, when the boot was on the other foot and I was lecturing at university, I used a collection of short stories with my first years to illustrate different narrative techniques such as indirect free speech and the unreliable narrator. Much easier than trying to find a novel that encompassed everything I wanted to cover. Collections for children also formed a large part of my class library when I was teaching ten and eleven year olds who were in the process of learning English as a second/third language.  For many the effort needed to sustain a full length novel would have been too much and put them off trying to read. Short stories worked much better. But, I don’t think I have ever picked up a collection just for my own pleasure and, Mansfield apart, until yesterday, when I started to think about this, I didn’t even own any.

So, how to go about choosing a collection. I am sure that I don’t want to start with the work of just one writer.   If I don’t like their style then the project will be doomed from the start.  So that means looking for a text with examples drawn from a wide range of authors.  Fortunately, I have a friend who is teaching a short story undergraduate course this coming term and she has recommended a collection edited by Victoria Hislop, published in 2013, The Story: Love, Loss & the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short Stories. It includes works by a good number of authors whose novels I have very much enjoyed, such as Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Anne Enright. I can feel comfortable with these writers, they are already ‘friends’.

And then there’s the question of when and how to read them.  I’m definitely not doing a Katherine Mansfield equivalent and sitting down and reading straight through the volume. I’m not feeling up to being that much of a martyr. A non-blogging friend has declared her intention to read a story every day throughout the coming academic year. I couldn’t commit to that either.  It would become too much of a pressure and I’d start to associate the short story with even more guilt than I do already. So I thought that initially I’d try just one a week and see how I get on with that. I can always decide to read another one if things go well. Just think how virtuous I would feel if I got it up to two a week!

In theory my chosen volume ought to see me through next year as well as this, but in case I surprise myself and finish sooner, or should the Hislop edition prove to have been a bad choice, what other collections would you suggest?  After all, I’m sure the same rule applies to short stories as it does to all other genres. There is no such thing as too many books.

6 thoughts on “Short Story Woes

  1. BookerTalk September 12, 2017 / 8:54 pm

    I was thinking about this very topic today. I don’t care for short stories either, they always leave me feeling short changed because they are over before I’ve really got into the story. I do have several collections and as wondering how best to read them. I can’t see myself reading one every day though. As for your question re a collection to look into, I have one called Lets Tell This Story Properly which is a collection of the winning entries in the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Competition so the voices will be very mixed. No idea if it’s any good though since I’ve yet to open it.


    • Café Society September 12, 2017 / 9:00 pm

      Right, I’ll look out for that because so often when a selection has been made by an editor the stories reflect their taste rather than the wide range that is available. I really do want to read at least one a week, but so far I haven’t made it. My excuse at the moment is that I have a poorly thumb. No, I know, I don’t think it holds water either, but I have to have some excuse.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. FictionFan September 13, 2017 / 4:17 pm

    I struggle with short stories too though I’ve been making an effort to read more of them over the last couple of years. I’d recommend Sandlands by Rosy Thornton – it is all one author’s work but I think it’s a great example of short stories as an actual collection, where each story is distinct and different, but together they address common themes and add to each other. In terms of anthologies, there’s an interesting one of Irish women writers called The Long Gaze Back – I’m dipping in and out of it and, like most anthologies, the quality is variable, but so far the good outweighs the less good…


    • Café Society September 13, 2017 / 4:23 pm

      Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve very much enjoyed Rosy Thornton’s novels. The one about the English Department at Cambridge (?) went all round my own department because it rang so true. I didn’t know she’d written short stories but I will look out for it.


  3. smithereens September 28, 2017 / 7:12 am

    I love short stories! I don’t read them nearly enough though, but I try to be intentional. If you’re a newbie in this department, you could check the New Yorker archives and pick whatever you fancy! I also have a mailing project with short stories, if you’re interested send me an e-mail privately.


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