If 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.