A Moment for the Short Story

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By David Hebblethwaite

Short stories are in our bones. They are often the first fiction we read or hear: fairy tales, bedtime stories – and at school (for example), they may well be the first fiction we write. For many of us, that instinctive understanding of what fiction is comes form the short form before anything else. Yet many adult readers don’t read short stories; it’s a puzzle to me why this should be, because it has never occurred to me not to read them.

When I talk to people about why they don’t like short stories, I’ll most often hear something along the lines of, “they finish just as I’m getting into them,” or, “I want to know more about what happens.” What’s at root here, I think, is a perception of fiction that’s become shaped by novels. This wouldn’t be surprising – I guess it’s through novels that reading develops into a long-term interest for most of us. And it has me thinking that the key to understanding the value of short stories lies in finding the right way to appreciate them, one that’s different from novels.

It strikes me that the experience of reading a good novel is like a journey: it takes a significant length of time, and there’s a clear sense of ending in a different place from where you started (let me add that I’m not really talking about the content here – the same experience can be had from a novel that stays in the same room). In contrast, a good short story is more like an intense moment of experience (regardless of the actual time-frame it covers): it happens fleetingly, then is gone; but it’s also heightened, and can still affect you deeply or change you.

Sometimes you’ll hear it said that short stories are ideal for today’s busy lifestyles, because they take less time to read than novels. That’s not really the case: they may take up less physical space, but good short stories are denser, more concentrated – they expand to fill up the mental space. Appreciating a short story needs time and attention, but then that’s true for all fiction – and maybe we could all do with slowing down more often, to appreciate life’s moments.

And on that note, here are some of my favourite recent story collections, that you might like to try:

This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor

I don’t know of any writer who reveals the strangeness at the heart of everyday life quite like Jon McGregor. A good number of the pieces in this collection are very short – some just two or three pages – but even in these, McGregor is so precise in how he depicts characters at pivotal (though seemingly mundane) moments in their lives. He’s superb at twisting language and tone to evoke the particular thought patterns of his characters – to show how the different the same old world looks when seen through another pair of eyes.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Probably the most macabre of Yoko Ogawa’s four books translated into English to date, Revenge is a set of eleven linked stories that begins with an apparently unremarkable act (a woman buying a cream tart for her son) which is soon revealed to have dark undertones (the woman’s son died as a young boy). And so the collection continues: details from one story are echoed in another; characters may recur; realities flicker in and out of focus. The matter-of-fact prose only adds to the sense of unease. It’s uncertain which thought is worse: that all the details of reality won’t come together into a coherent whole, or that they might.

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

This collection takes as its starting point the real-life suicide of the author’s father. Each of the six stories looks at a fictionalised version of that event from a different angle – but they also contradict each other in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. That’s where the ‘legend’ comes in: we can’t know the full truth of what happened, so the suicide becomes larger in the telling. It’s worth adding that David Vann is an excellent writer of landscape – his depictions of California and especially Alaska are a vivid foil for his characters – but the most potent aspect of Legend of a Suicide is its cumulative sense of loss, of a vanished past that can’t be retrieved.

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Contemporary stories with a touch of the ancient supernatural are not uncommon these days; but anything can be made anew in the right hands. Lucy Wood takes Cornish folklore as her inspiration for Diving Belles, but the world she creates is entirely her own. A real sense of magic flows through these tales – strange and dangerous, even when the book is at its most light-hearted. Wood elegantly intertwines the fantastic with her characters’ personal lives and emotional states. The result is a fictional landscape with stories crackling under every footstep.

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

I reviewed this collection for Issue 1 of Shiny New Books, you can read about it here.

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Got the taste for a short story now? Visit these reviews to find out more: Tom Barbash’s Stay Up With Me  and Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress and David Guterson’s Problems with People!

David blogs at David’s Book World and has recently completed a month as guest editor of the Fiction Uncovered blog.