ColumnRead a short story. Sustain your mind.
Once upon a time, I thought short stories were just for us kids – mini-books for mini-people, kind of like the lamb chops my mother fed me when she was serving steaks to the “big people” at the table. I figured what was on my plate was the same stuff as theirs, just kid-sized – a perfect portion for my (relatively) tiny self. Of course, it turns out that short stories are about as different an animal from long-form novels as lamb is from beef. Turns out, too, that they can be acquired taste – one that, to be honest, took me a long time to come around to.
Over the years I’ve discovered I’m not alone. Just this morning, in fact, a friend (a voracious reader) asked me what this week’s column was going to cover. When I told him “short stories,” I got a sigh followed by a quick (and somewhat terse), “Oh, well, I’ll look forward to your next one, then.”
“Not into short stories?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. ‘They’re too…uh… short.” It’s a sentiment I’ve come across a lot, from casual and dedicated readers alike. It got me thinking about how I finally – and somewhat begrudgingly – have come around to the form.
In those single-digit days, wonderful (and digestible) classroom reading included the likes of The Ransom of Red Chief and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, memorable short works from O. Henry and Washington Irving, respectively. These functioned not only as entertainment, but also as an introduction to literature (the pump having been primed at an even earlier age by Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson and a host of other great “children’s” authors). In many ways, the only form I knew was short, but I was nevertheless delighted to make the jump from spoon-fed to self-inflicted fiction, desiring to receive my stories on my own terms.
I grew frustrated with short stories as a teenager as I began to feel a sense of constriction when reading even the best of them. Characters seemed underdeveloped, plot lines abbreviated, the distance between “once upon a time” and “the end” maddeningly compressed. It’s not that short was dumb (Salinger‘s stories rocked), but there was only so much an author could do in so few pages (I thought). Meanwhile, my first novels were proving to be intensely compelling.
I realize now that I was being trained to process fiction “Dickens style” – not a bad thing on its surface, but a perspective that didn’t leave a lot of room for quick takes or fragment-like construction, among other approaches to storytelling. Indeed, poetry and experimental prose were also off the table back then; for the most part it was go long or not at all. Eventually my reading time became almost exclusively dedicated to novels, and I gladly chose For Whom the Bells Tolls over Hills Like White Elephants, Jay Gatsby over Benjamin Button, Holden over Sergeant X.
Looking back, I feel like I missed out—I wish my teachers had used short stories (and collections) as more than a springboard for reading longer novels. (By late high school, we were done with Nine Stories and well into Moby Dick.) Today, my knowledge of short fiction by renowned greats such as Raymond Carver, John Cheever and even Dorothy Parker (unforgettable quotes aside), is limited at best, much to the chagrin of many of my better-read friends. Sure, I picked up collections here and there over the years (from Hemingway and Flannery O’Conner to John Updike and Ann Beattie), but I almost always opted for a novel when I had an option.
In recent years, however, I’ve revisited the short story form, in part due to pressure from those friends I mentioned, (some of whom have an almost cult-like love for the approach). And here’s the deal: I’ve discovered that all along I have been looking at this kind of fiction through the wrong lens. I know I’m speaking extremely broadly, but it is precisely their abbreviated length that makes short stories work the way they do. They’re different from novels and when read as something other than mini-tales, they jump off the page in a whole new kind of high relief.
A couple of observations for you fellow resisters out there: When reading short stories, consider that “negative space” – what isn’t said – becomes intensely critical and powerful. Take just a few minutes (another nice thing about short stories) and read Hemingway’s Hills (trust me) and ask yourself, “What exactly is the procedure they’re talking about? What does the lack of directness mean and how does it make you feel?” More: What did the father do to the boy in Philipp Meyer’s gripping One Day This Will All Be Yours? In John Collier’s beloved The Chaser, what was it about the old man’s curious mixtures? More so than in more elaborated fictions, in stories like these you find yourself providing your own context and ideas – your imagination becomes an absolutely critical part of (even the plot) experience. Yeah. That works for me.
Another great aspect of short fiction is that brevity lends itself well to presenting summations and snapshots of themes and plots. Just like life, right? I mean, aside from the work of some notable authors, we generally don’t think or experience or even remember in novel-like form (which conversely is one of the things that can be so compelling about a good, long book), but rather in bits and shards and self-prioritized life-bites. Like poems, short stories tap into our collage-oriented, postmodern minds. Even stories that cover a lot of ground (must) offer washes and inferences to paint larger pictures and elicit deep feelings. Indeed, today I see short stories in many ways like I do poems. I’m not there for a “traditional” narrative in first place. I read them to get a feeling. And the best collections of stories result in a very powerful emotional response that novels sometimes just can’t accomplish.
I still have to force myself to reach for a short story collection over the next “book” on my list. But recently I did just that and once again I was handsomely rewarded. (Ironically, though, I read Adam Levin’s fabulous Hot Pink not only because I heard nothing but great things, but also because I just couldn’t bear to pick up his much-lauded debut novel, The Instructions, which weighs in at 1,030 pages.) In fact, it was this collection (covered below) that inspired this column.
Here are six collections that might turn you on to the form (give it a chance) or, if you’re already a fan, you might have overlooked. There’s one from each of the last five decades, plus one released last year that spans the career of one of our most celebrated novelists.
Distortions, Ann Beattie (1976)
Profound, intense and often funny, yet submerged in a malaise that defined an era, Ann Beattie’s debut collection reads fresh in today’s fragmented and technologically fueled “here, but apart” world. The usual workaday aspects of characters’ lives are tinged with the strange, as simple worlds want to be. With the mundane functioning as petri dish, Beattie grows and exposes our odd attempts and failures at connection and meaning (divorce and adultery are themes here) in a middle-class world. Published when she was 29, Distortions (released the same year as her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter) immediately established the author as an unflinching whistleblower of that “Me” generation.
Girl with Curious Hair, David Foster Wallace (1989)
Published two years after his decidedly “audacious” first novel, The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace’s debut short story collection showed (showed off, some said) the versatility and extreme intelligence that would mark his sadly shortened career and earn him a legion of zealous fans. In Girl with Curious Hair, Wallace paints a cultural portrait of fixation, obsession and celebrity (from Alex Trebek to David Letterman) against a backdrop of our yearning and reaching for love and intimacy – and he does all this in wholly unpredictable ways that can have you utterly transfixed one moment and out of breath the next. Using popular media touchstones in combination with deeply idiosyncratic characters, Wallace exposes and pulls apart human desires with his signature observational focus and wit.
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (1998)
Her third collection of short stories, Birds of America solidly established Lorrie Moore as one of the great short story writers of our generation – and one of the most popular, as well. This New York Times bestseller goes deep and dark, while maintaining an intelligent sense of humor. The combination allows us to stare at and even enjoy these troubled characters as they navigate lives where the line between stable and painfully untethered is sometimes suddenly, and sometimes subtly blurred. Moore’s gift of language is riveting – you’ll roll sentences around in your mind and repeat them out loud for their cadence and truth. From their sexual frustrations to their family “issues,” Moore’s protagonists are at once utterly unique and instantly recognizable – a reader’s dream.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro (2001)
To many, Alice Munro is hands-down the greatest working master of the short story form. Each new collection by the Canadian author is snapped up, scrutinized and lavished with critical praise. Munro’s female protagonists in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage each embody a complex, yet fundamental internal struggle between universal recognizable poles – family and independence, home and away, personal identity and the weight of interpersonal relationships. Munro’s stories have an emotional span to them that goes beyond the full lifetimes they sometimes portray. Also assisting is the Canadian landscape, which provides a sparse stage that allows emotions to register in a very pure form – an unmistakable and wholly accessible style.
Hot Pink, Adam Levin (2011)
The literary world is staring at Adam Levin. How could they not? His first novel, massive and reportedly brilliant in both concept and language (The Instructions, 2010) was met with immediate acclaim and comparisons to the late David Foster Wallace. Mercifully, Levin’s follow up, Hot Pink, is a wonderfully manageable, wildly creative and deeply insightful collection of short stories. Love is a theme (though an extremely unreliable ally) for Levin’s characters as they march through personal changes, fate and life’s pure weirdness, all the while trying to stay upright and attempting to anchor to something – anything – that might prevent them from drifting away. Oh, and his wordsmithing? You’ll set this book down more than once, smiling and shaking your head – clever. Very clever.
The Angel Esmeralda, Don DeLillo (2011)
A collection of stories from America’s postmodern master, The Angel Esmeralda – Nine Stories brings together the author’s short-form work from 1979 to 2011. Both within themselves and taken together as a collection, these snapshot tales present the often abstract and fragmented darkness that hovers over our transition from the 20th to the 21st Century. Some see Don DeLillo’s work as prescient, but a more accurate description is unflinchingly mirror-like, allowing every trick of modern hyper-light to illuminate our way forward. Each story here pokes at often-mundane instances and interactions, fascinations and obsessions that are arrestingly lifelike in both chance and relevance. (From “Book ’Em: 10 Best Reads From 2011.”)
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly column, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
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