Until relatively recently, I was a short fiction sceptic. The fact that I rarely read it didn’t stop me having a rather dismissive attitude: weren’t short stories a bit trivial and unsatisfying? Why would I spend time on them when I could be reading a novel? I was far from alone in my views.
When I started writing, those views began to change almost immediately. My creative writing class introduced me to Chandler, Cheever, Katherine Mansfield and, most significantly, Jackie Kay’s superb collection Wish I Was Here. Writers seem more enthusiastic about ‘shorts’ than the wider reading public, probably because that’s what we naturally produce at the beginning. When I read mine out in class and people said, ‘Is it part of a novel?’ it wasn’t the sign of a good story, but secretly I was pleased; I wanted to write a novel, so I did. Last year when it was ‘finished’ (which it wasn’t, of course), in order to free up some fresh ideas, I started writing short stories.
But above all, I began reading them – hundreds of them – and am now a true convert.
It’s been a revelation just how powerful, moving and memorable a really good short story can be. (Further thoughts in this Q&A I did with Amanda Saint for Retreat West). The short fiction scene is buzzing with live events like Oxford-based Short Stories Aloud and Brighton’s Rattle Tales (to whom I owe both my performing debut and first published story!) There are hundreds of literary journals featuring shorts and passionate advocates of the form, notably flash fiction expert Tania Hershman. As the (very) longlists of prestigious competitions such the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and Edge Hill Short Story Prize demonstrate, there are top quality collections out there if you know where to look.
It’s often said the short form is gaining ground – there are many theories as to why that might be, from the short attention spans we’re told we all have (spurious) to the practicality of reading shorts on smartphones and e-readers (more credible) – but try finding any evidence of that translating into higher sales (do comment if you have any). There’s a vicious circle which goes something like this: agents don’t want to represent short fiction – publishers don’t want to publish it – booksellers don’t stock/promote it – readers don’t buy it. There’s more on this in an excellent post by agent Lucy Luck but the bottom line is that publishing is a business: collections simply don’t sell the way novels do, and don’t get the same attention, reviews or promotional push. I spend a lot of time in bookshops, and very few have a prominent display of short story collections (well done to those who do).
Pitting novels and story collections against each other isn’t a very intelligent approach (ask any short form writer who’s constantly asked if they ‘have a novel’). They’re not the same thing, just as going to the theatre and watching a movie aren’t the same; they’re different ways to tell a story. It’s not an EITHER/OR, either; I don’t know anyone who exclusively reads short stories. 90% of my reading is still novel-length, but the new 10% is a genuinely rewarding addition to my reading and writing life.
I hope everyone – aficionado or sceptic – finds something they’d like to try in my pick of new and recent collections.
Do you enjoy short fiction? If not, feel free to say so and I’d love to know if you’re tempted by any of my suggestions. The last few blogposts have prompted fantastic, lively discussions – bring it on!
TENTH OF DECEMBER – GEORGE SAUNDERS (Bloomsbury)
My top recommendation for anyone who believes that a short story can never punch at the same weight as a novel. George Saunders is an undisputed master of the form and I consumed this collection in a continuous state of awe. He delivers so much in few words: humour, satire, social commentary. His often futuristic visions are stunningly original and frankly quite terrifying. I couldn’t forget Escape from Spiderhead or The Semplica Girl Diaries if I wanted to. Which I don’t.
THE BOOK OF LIFE – STUART NADLER (Picador)
A newcomer on the American literary scene with this and his debut novel Wise Men, Stuart Nadler is arguably burdened with comparisons to the likes of Cheever and Updike and best judged on his own merits. He has a particular gift for drawing convincing and wrenchingly poignant relationships between men. This is a captivating insight into East Coast Jewish-American life and what it lacks in variety of theme it more than makes up for in emotional power. I don’t often cry reading fiction but his story Visiting really made me feel like it.
PORTRAITS OF A FEW OF THE PEOPLE I’VE MADE CRY – CHRISTINE SNEED (Bloomsbury)
I discovered Christine Sneed on reading her debut novel Little Known Facts, which I really enjoyed for its compelling characterisation and a writing style which is warm, sophisticated and yet extremely readable. All of which is also true of her collection Portraits. Funny, quirky, often a little or a lot sad, these stories tell of ‘ordinary’ people’s longings, hopes and disappointments and make the gap in between very raw and believable. The story 12+12 made me hurt for all concerned.
BLACK VODKA – DEBORAH LEVY (And Other Stories)
Deborah Levy takes the one subject on which you might think nothing much new can be said – love – and finds something that’s both strange and recognisable, coming at it from an angle nobody has previously discovered. The title story Black Vodka reflects everything the collection is: humane in its perception, dazzling in its originality and crystalline in its expression.
THE PRE-WAR HOUSE – ALISON MOORE (Salt – 15 May 2013)
Like Deborah Levy, Alison Moore made the Man Booker Prize 2012 shortlist with her debut novel. The Lighthouse attracted praise for its stripped-back prose, its intensity and its powerful sense of darkness and menace. This collection, consisting largely of stories written and published elsewhere over a period of 13 years, showcases the evolution of a writer who refuses to dilute her stories with artificial light or sentimentality to make them more palatable. There’s really no need, when she knows how to make bleakness so thrillingly readable.
Next week , Australian debut novelist David Rain visits the Literary Sofa to talk about The Heat of the Sun, his novel re-telling the Madame Butterfly story. And then 16 May promises the highlight of the Literary Sofa year – the publication of Top 10 Summer Reads.
I’m also a relatively recent convert. Annie Proulx’s Fine Just the Way It Is was the first collection I read – masterful – and I am currently highly enjoying Married Love by Tessa Hadley which I picked up at the airport in a rush, mistaking it for a novel. Did you see the recent Irish anthology Silver Threads of Hope? It gives a good cross section of the talent out there. Great blog by the way.
Thanks for those suggestions. I recently read and enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s story ‘Experience’ in the New Yorker. Glad you like the blog, thanks. I seem to have got a lot of new readers lately which is brilliant!
I shared your scepticism, Isabel, until I read Raymond Carver, who is such a master of the short story. The way he manages to evoke powerful emotions economically and in beautiful prose leaves me in awe. I think a great short story is much harder than long form writing to pull off.
If you’re talking Carver type of great, then yes, I’m sure you’re right. Maybe it’s because I’ve just spent months wrestling with a 100k manuscript, but what I love about writing shorts is being able to delve into anything and gain some sense of completion that doesn’t take years!
Seconded. It’s a skill I’d love to develop – I think shorts and novellas are in for a revival, largely cos the form really suits digital reading and our insanely busy info-grazing lifestyles. Longer form works best on paper, IMO – I tried reading Wolf Hall on Kindle and had to give up and go old school..!
When I started writing, I was lovingly steered in the direction of flash and short fiction. I’m completely hooked on both reading and writing short fiction. There’s something quite beautiful in reading a complete story in 1000 words rather than 80k.
How lovely to hear from a devoted fan of the short haul story! I must say, I really admire anyone who can tell a story with such economy.
Oh Isabel! We have such similar tastes. I loved-loved-loved Saunders’ *Tenth of Decemer*. Thought it quite the best thing I’ve read in ages. Couldn’t stop thinking about “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” and the title story made me weep. As for Nadler–just wonderful. Oy! Two more very fine collections of late: Edith Pealman’s “Binocular Vision” and Amber Dermont’s latest, “Damage Control.” Thank you for devoting a whole post to short fiction.
Thanks Jack. You’re right, the overlap in our tastes has been proven so many times! The Semplica Girl Diaries is incredibly sinister and scary, not least because it’s not impossible to imagine society heading that way. Thanks for your tips – I’ve heard about the Edith Pearlman and am keen to read the Amber Dermont but it’s not out over here. Hope you’ll also enjoy my summer selection in a couple of weeks.
I do like the intensity of short stories, and can vouch for at least one of the stories in Alison Moore’s collection having heard her read it recently, but am feeling rather guilty as I probably spend more time writing short fiction than reading it. This is going to sound really stupid but I find it quite hard to find a space for a short story in my day! Five minutes over breakfast might not be enough to do it justice and, if I’ve got a longer period of time for reading I’d rather settle down with a novel which I can read for as long or as short a time as I choose. I really don’t like finishing one short story and immediately starting another – it’s like eating two puddings – so if it’s too short, I’m left twiddling my thumbs.
Totally know what you mean, I don’t like reading more than one thing in a sitting either. I find reading shorts on my Kindle really handy for travelling on the Tube if the novel I’m reading is a hardback breezeblock.
Most of your list is now on my ‘to be bought’ to go on my ‘to be read’ pile. Saunders sounds very exciting – I remember the buzz on Twitter when it came out. I can’t remember when I hadn’t read short stories: I probably started reading John Wyndham, I love Katherine Mansfield and Borges. Haven’t bought any for a long time now. Your post is going to shake me up to do just that!
I pride myself on being an Adder-to-TBR agent! Glad you found the selection of interest. Saunders – do it now! You’ll never be the same again….
Great to see George Saunders’s name at the top of your list – I was blown away by his collection ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’ – just brilliant. (Just checked and it was published in 1997!) Also love James Salter, ZZ Packer, Lorrie Moore… interesting how many are American. But my all-time favourite story has to be ‘Ralph the Duck’ by Frederick Busch (another American!) – his ability to get under the skin of his characters and make them live is breathtaking. The feeling of the story lingers, long after you finish reading it. Can a story be more effective than a novel in that way, because reading it is such a concentrated experience? And easier than a novel to re-read!
Several people have mentioned George Saunders’s previous collections. Must check them out. Good point about shorts being more practical to re-read.
I too am grateful for your additions to my TBR list – that’s never a bad thing. Though I left Australia nearly 5 years ago, I still seem to be promoting Australian artists. Some of their short story collections I have loved include ‘Dream Stuff: Stories’ (David Malouf), The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming (Elliot Perlman), and more recently Like A House On Fire (Cate Kennedy).
I was introduced to George Saunders in a Shaun Levin workshop, and still use him as inspiration when I get stuck and need to push a story somewhere, by thinking ‘What Would George Do?’
Looking forward to David Rain next week.
Thanks Jen and sorry for the delay replying to your comment. Thanks for those recommendations – the number of excellent collections out there is staggering considering the short story allegedly doesn’t sell! I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t realise Elliot Perlman was Australian. Just posting the David Rain piece today which I’m sure you’ll enjoy – it’s terrific.