At a recent book conference I attended a session called “In Praise of Short Stories”. I found the session so inspirational and challenging that I came away with a personal mission to give short stories another chance. And in order to have something to “practice” on, I purchased this delicious brick of a volume (over 600 pages with 60+ stories!) by an author I already like. Elizabeth Taylor writes beautifully and has always been somewhat undervalued, perhaps because of the confusion around her name. When I read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont I realized I wanted to read more of her work.
To be honest I have not been a fan of short story mostly because I got impatient with just getting into the characters and the set-up and then it would all abruptly end. So why spend all that investment on a story just to have to leave it and go on to another?
What I learned at the session, was that the short story experience has to be viewed differently, as with poetry. Short stories are small powerful self-contained nuggets, like a concentrated capsule or a core sample with only the important stuff. The impact is intense, like a bullet. That is not to say however, that there is always closure. As with a novel, a good short story can also leave much unsaid. Sometimes when I read a short story I have the nagging feeling that I’m not quite “getting it” (that happens with poetry too). Perhaps it will take some more reflection than I have been willing to give it in the past.
So, with short stories the main advice is simple – read one a day, no more. To get the most out of it, read it twice. The first time to be introduced to the story and the second time to go deeper and try to appreciate what the author has done; notice the word choice, the themes, the structure, and the development. Apparently short story writers have a purpose for everything and nothing is extra or unnecessary – very lean. In fact diehard short story fans get impatient with novels since there’s too much padding!
So my plan is to keep this anthology nearby and read a story every couple of weeks, in between novels. I might pick up a collection by Alice Munro as well. She is probably one of the most celebrated short story authors and one whose stories I have enjoyed in the past. Munro said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Everything the story tells, moves you in such a way that you feel you’re a different person when you finish.” That kind of reading experience is worth the challenge! Actually all reading is that way. Experiences in literature do affect us and change us. That much we know for sure.
What do you think about short stories? Is there a short story author that you would recommend?