Sunday Salon: Short Stuff

In 9th grade, I had a brief and intense love affair with the short story. The literature anthology my English class used had a great selection of stories—stories that would make anyone fall in love with the form. There was “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry, “The Interlopers” by Saki, and “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. I loved these stories and read them over and over. I also got my hands on several more anthologies, many of them copies of old textbooks my school previous used, and so I also read and adored “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R Tolkein, “Eveline” by James Joyce, “The Destructors” by Graham Greene, “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe, “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence, and many others.

Like so many 9th grade love affairs, this one didn’t last. It’s not so much that I fell out of love. I just moved on to other things. For one thing, I discovered the novel and the full-length play. These (along with poems) because the primary forms taught in my literature classes, and they became the bulk of my reading diet. I haven’t avoided the short story entirely since that time. I’ve read a few wonderful collections, usually collections by a single author or on a single theme. But the short story and I have mostly remained ships passing in the night.

I’ve had a similar experience with the short essay, although the love affair was much later. In my mid-20s, I took a course in literary journalism and discovered the world of creative nonfiction (i.e., nonfiction that uses many of the same techniques used in fiction—pacing, character, detail, and so on). I read several collections—some of these were essays by multiple writers on a single theme (I remember specifically one on spiritual writing); some were collections by a single author (Anne Lamott became a particular favorite); and others were collections from the Best American Essay series. I also made a point of reading the lengthy human-interest stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines; many of these stories were marvelous examples of short nonfiction. But then I moved on, and my nonfiction reading shifted to full-length memoirs and  long journalistic investigations (some of which, quite frankly, would have been better off as articles).

I know a lot of people say they don’t like short fiction or nonfiction. That’s not the case with me. I do love reading short pieces. What I have trouble with is figuring out the best way to approach short works. Is it more fruitful to read straight through, as if I were reading a novel? Or to dole the stories out, reading only one a week?

When I read straight through, I often find that I don’t give each story much consideration as a single work. This is not much of a problem when all the works are by a single author, because the collection usually has some sort of overarching theme or style. And if an author’s voice doesn’t capture my imagination in the first story, I might find myself fully immersed by the third or fourth. But with anthologies by multiple authors, moving quickly from author to author means that I don’t give myself time to get used to each author’s voice or style.

But reading a story at a time has its drawbacks, too. I don’t like to have too many books on the go, for one thing. I tend to have a specific book for each location where I read—home, work, car (audio in the car of course, a reread at work, and the home book doubles as my “walking around” book that goes in my purse to read in waiting rooms, at restaurants, etc.). And then I usually have some sort of book project that I’m working through slowly. These days, that book is whatever my church book club is reading. More than that, and at least one book will end up falling completely off my (imaginary) nightstand.

I have considered doing a story a week and posting about it, as other bloggers have done with “Short Story Monday” at The Book Mine Set and “Essay Monday” at Evening All Afternoon”. But the idea of committing to reading and posting on a story a week (even if it’s a commitment only to myself) makes me feel stressed. With than in mind, Rob’s less-structured 100 Shots of Short Challenge might be more my speed, but if there’s no plan to it at all, it won’t get done. I’ll start a collection, read one or two stories, and then I won’t get back to it for six months, during which time I won’t be able to make myself put it back on the shelf, even though the sight of it sitting around will make me feel guilt about not reading it. (I am a guilt machine. It’s what I do.)

So I think, for me, the answer is making a point of getting some good collections and reading them straight through, despite the drawbacks. I’ve been gathering up collections for the last several months and will continue to do so. Right now, I’m mostly focusing on single-author collections, but I may snag some yearbooks or thematic collections if they catch my eye. I do enjoy short pieces—fiction and non—and I’m hoping that treating collections as “just another book” enable me to work them back into my reading diet.

Do you read many short stories or essays? What approach works best for you? Perhaps you have some system I haven’t thought of. And do you have any favorite story or essay writers or collections to recommend?

Notes from a Reading Life: July 26 to August 14

Between lacking inspiration, having guests, and going out of town, it’s been a while since my last reading update. The list is long!

Books Completed

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (audio). I can’t quite believe how much I loved this audiobook. It’s fabulous!
  • Howards End by E.M. Forster. Quite possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.
  • The Holy Vote by Ray Suarez. Smart and generally even-handed book on politics and religion in the United States, but a little out-of-date.
  • Four Past Midnight by Stephen King. King at his best and worst.
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor. A tremendous collection by one of my favorite short story writers.
  • Star Island by Carl Hiasson. A comic novel that I gave up on after 125 pages. The comedy is too broad for my tastes, I think.
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil. An insightful collection of writings from a great thinker.
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. What we can learn about writing from reading great writers.
  • Godric by Frederick Buechner. A novel about Saint Godric of Finchale. For Amy’s August Faith and Fiction Saturday Roundtable. Discussion to come on the last Saturday in August.

Currently Reading

  • The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins. The head of the Human Genome Project on science and faith. For my church’s book club.
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (audio). My second Coetzee. Will I love this as much as Summertime?
  • The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. Rereading one of my favorite Atwood novels.
  • The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. My first Cather. Thomas bought me a copy on our Daedalus Books visit several weeks ago and insisted I read it right away. Since I’ve been wanting to read Cather for years, I’m happy to oblige!

New Acquisitions

  • Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates. Yates is one of many writers whose work I want to read more of, so I snagged this when it showed up on Paperbackswap.
  • Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After by Bella DePaulo. From Paperbackswap. I get frustrated by the stereotypes about single adults out there, and I came across this book when looking into Bachelor Girl (which I ultimately decided not to read).
  • The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart. Won from LibraryThing’s Early Review program.

On My Radar

  • Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar. A woman gives up her job and moves into the house that she has inherited from a great-aunt and gets to know the people in her new surroundings. But then, signs of unreliability appear. I’ll let Simon at Stuck in a Book explain: “At first she seems unhinged in a jolly way – singing to herself, accosting everyone with sunny optimism and faux-schoolma’am whimsy. She meanders along the line between being consciously eccentric and… something less healthy. She gets increasingly bizarre, and it becomes clear that she is not sane.”
  • Room by Emma Donaghue. Aarti’s review first got me curious about this book about a 5-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a single room with his mother. Its inclusion on the Booker longlist and Kimbofo’s review convinced me that I must read this.
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I don’t read as much fantasy fiction as I used to, but I’m always interested in trying out the good stuff. Martin has been in the back of my mind for years, and thanks to this review at  The Literary Omnivore, I’m adding A Game of Thrones, the first of his Song of Fire and Ice series, to my list.
  • The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. My recent reread of A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories reminded me how much I love O’Connor, so I’d like to read her letters and perhaps learn more about the thought process behind her work.
  • The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil. The story of a star-crossed romance between a young Muslim woman and young nonreligious Kenyan man. Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room says, “I absolutely loved it, one of the best reads so far this year.”
  • Hey Waitress and Other Stories by Helen Potrebenko. A collection of stories about women and workers of all kinds by a Canadian Ukranian author. Melwyk at The Indextrous Reader says, ” I was intrigued and inspired by her fresh voice and her stalwart committment to saying what she means. Very interesting writing that anyone with a political interest would find engaging,”
  • The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Girard. Like Jenny, I have an inexplicable fascination with cold-weather disasters, although in my case, they’re usually about mountaineering (lots of Everest documentaries). I’d like to broaden my fixation a bit, and I love a first-person account. Jenny says that this account of an Antarctic expedition is a “huge, amazing, riveting memoir about a tragedy and a triumph.”
  • The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist. A novella recommended in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer. A story collection recommended in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.
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30 Responses to Sunday Salon: Short Stuff

  1. Short stories and I have never really gotten along. I have to admit I’ve only read two short story collections in my life- Firebirds and So Long Been Dreaming. (I’m working on it!) I recently read a short story collection with multiple contributors, and I found the quality to just be uneven; there were some wonderful stories, but the poor ones pulled the entire collection down. When I do, though, I like to read straight through. A good collection, I think, ought to play on how the stories can interact with each other, like parts of a good meal. I am quite interested in some of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections, because I love him, but overall, the medium doesn’t call out to me.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve had the same issue with collections–even in fabulous ones, there may be a story or two that I don’t care for. But then again, even some of my favorite books have points where my interest flags a bit.

      It does seem like maybe stories by an author you already love, like Gaiman, would be a way to try out the form.

  2. Sasha says:

    Augh. I love short stories. Will always love them, will always be my favorite form. I’ve learned that some collections demand a read-straight-through approach: Miranda July’s collection, for example, which is addictive and more importantly, holds on to variety and distinction when it comes to the stories. I also read Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help the way I do a novel, because it’s just too good.

    But they’re not always that good in one go. And there are collections that are too good that you have to breathe — with July and Moore, I felt inebriated (but it was still worth it, haha). Jeffrey Eugenides’ anthology was one that demanded I had to rein myself in, despite my first instinct to devour the stories in one go.

    It’s a tricky situation, if I stop to reflect about it. I guess it’s because I value a single story as much as I do the entire collection, that they need the respect and time I’d give to any other form, like the novel. So nowadays, when I feel like the stories could work better read one by one, or slowly, or, say, three a day, I do so. I just finished Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis this afternoon, and because they had this thematic clutch, I had to ration my reading, or else they’d get too similar. That’s a flaw, yes, but it’s of the collection, not necessarily the individual stories.

    Nowadays, I tend to read collections with other books, space out the stories in a week. Some days I read just one. Some days, I read five stories. But if it’s taking a long time, then that’s a sign I should either dive right in, or let it go.

    It always breaks my heart — and makes me a little mad, really — when people say that they don’t like them. I commented this on Trevor’s blog a few hours ago: “See, I really do not understand the dislike, the hate. Before I joined the blogging world, I had this impression that people loved short stories as much as I did — as much as my country likes it, is used to them, I guess? But the book blogosphere is a scary sample of the general attitude. And I don’t get it. It breaks my heart, even.”

    PS — Short story writers who’ve never failed me: Richard Yates [!], Lorrie Moore, Miranda July, Joan Silber, Raymond Carver, Maile Meloy… Augh, too many to think of right now, haha.

    [Oh my goodness, I went overboard with the commenting, didn’t I? My mind’s been on the same thing these past few days. Also thought of putting up a Sunday Salon post for this, but was eventually won over by the alliteration of “sunday salon || Sasha’s Short Story September” :] Yeah, planning on dedicating a chunk of my September to short fiction. :] We’ll see if the alliteration is worth it, haha.]

    • Teresa says:

      No apologies for the long comment. I love it!

      It doesn’t really bother me when people say they don’t like the form. We like what we like, you know? But I do wonder how often the “dislike” is more about not being used to them, or not being able to find the best way of reading them.

      I really like how you talk about valuing a single story as much as the entire collection. I do feel like with reading straight through I sometimes miss the single story’s value. Perhaps something like stopping and making a few notes in between would be in order.

      • Sasha says:

        I think it’s some pride as well, haha. Ego! I took Creative Writing, and my genre was fiction. So I write short stories. And the culture here in my country tends to favor the short form more — we are a literary community with only a handful of novels. So, on one hand, it’s like someone’s talking trash about your mom. On the other, it’s like someone’s talking trash about your baby. I can’t help it!

        Yes, I love novels, but short fiction will always hold a special place in my heart.

  3. Deb says:

    I’m glad you mentioned “The Scarlet Ibis.” I too remember reading that in the 9th grade and tears running down my face at the end of it.

    I find it’s easier to read short stories if I’m reading a collection by a single author or if the short stories are grouped by a single theme (I read a lot of mysteries and there are a number of themed mystery short story collections–revenge, femme fatales, Christmas, etc.). I find it hard to get into a collection of stories by different writers where the reason for the stories’s inclusion is simply the date (Best Short Stories of 2009, etc.); it’s too jarring to deal with the many changes of tone, style, storyline, characters, and so on.

    Here’s a great quote from Joyce Carol Oates about short stories: “The essence of a literary short story isn’t that it’s a ‘short’ concatenation of sentences but that it’s distilled, explosively condensed, like good poetry.”

    I liked that quote so much, I jotted it down!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a great quote, Deb! Flannery O’Connor (my favorite short story writer) feels like that to me–explosively condensed. Her novels are *less* exciting.

      I’ve never read a short story collection organized by year, just essays. For essays, it worked fine, but I’m not sure how it would go for stories. Perhaps I’ll try and see sometime.

  4. cbjames says:

    I’m with Sasha. I don’t understand the vitrol against short stories in the book blogosphere. I used to do a short story a week on my own blog. I do them less frequently now. It is difficult to write about a single short story without giving too much away, but it’s not at all difficult to come up with something to say about them. Not for me at least.

    The main idea that I’d like to turn on it’s head is the notion that one “moves on” from short stories to novels. I think the sole justification for this notion is that novels are longer, but since when does length equal quality or level of difficulty. And should one “move on” from shorter novels to longer ones, say Victorian or Russian? Very few people seem to “move on” once they get to novels.

    I do short stories and short story anthologies once in a while now. There are so many wonderful short stories and short essays out there. Refusing to read them because they are not long enough, just strikes me as a mistake.

    • Teresa says:

      I totally agree that stories should not be treated as warm-ups to novels. My own experience of moving on from one form to another had a lot to do with my teachers just not teaching many short stories after 9th grade, which is a shame. I realized how true it is that stories can be a complex as novels when I discovered Flannery O’Connor in college. (It was my recent reread of her first collection that inspired this post!)

  5. christina says:

    I’m not fond of short stories because i always feel like I want more. I do enjoy essays, however, I just don’t know where to look to find good ones.

    • Teresa says:

      The Best American Essay collections were good sources of essays for me. And I believe they also have some thematic collections how (travel writing, sports writing) There are a couple of essayists I just really enjoy (E.B. White, Anne Lamott), and they have collections. The web has been good for the essay form in some respects I think because online publications like Salon provide a place for good creative nonfiction writers to get there work out there.

  6. Frances says:

    Love, love, love short stories. That snapshot view of a life, a mind, a … anything. Always reading some too but rarely post on them and am not sure why. Lydia Davis recently collected short fiction and It’s Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun are two collections that I have been particularly enjoying for some time now.

    Think that some do not enjoy as much if they are looking for that full narrative arc that short fiction is not designed to deliver, but I find short stories to be like the quick but important thought or observation that passes through your head. An impression, a moment where what cam before or what will follow is somehow irrelevant in cases and up to the reader to construct in others.

    And those are some really long lists, woman! :) Happy reading!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s that quick hit feeling of a short story that I like. Sometimes that punch in the gut is all you need, and more feels like padding. (The Stephen King novella collection I just read included one piece that would have given me nightmares at half the length, but was a mess at 200 pages.)

      And the long list does reflect three weeks of reading and blog-hopping, so it’s not as impressive as it looks at first glance!

  7. John Mutford says:

    Hi Teresa,
    While I do push for a short story review per week for myself, I understand that not everyone wants to feel pressured. So, if you just want to participate in Short Story Mondays occasionally, you’re more than welcomed!

  8. Steph says:

    I think you know I’m not the greatest of short story readers… I keep trying, but for me, they always are less of a priority than novels. I’ve tarried with the idea of posting about individual short stories rather than entire collections/volumes, but I wonder about the time/effort that would be involved in such an undertaking. Would I have sufficient material to post on each story I read? Perhaps… but as you say, it seems like a rather large writing and posting commitment. For now I guess I’ll stick with writing about entire volumes while also trying to find more time for short stories in my life.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, posting about each story could get old after a while, although I agree with CB that a lot of stories offer plenty of meat to write about. A post for every story would mean a lot of posting–more than I want to do!

      I think Emily used to read five essays a week for her Essay Mondays and just choose one to write in detail about. If I were reading a long collection (essays or stories) or taking a long time to get through a collection, I could see that working well.

  9. JoAnn says:

    I love short stories, but am not able to read a collection straight through. It seems I need to space them out (not more than one per day works for me) in order to really appreciate each one.

    It’s been hard to post every week this spring/summer, but I’m hoping to participate more regularly in Short Story Monday starting next month. I love classic short stories, but also have collections by T.C. Boyle, Richard Yates, Cynthia Ozick, and Louise Erdrich that I’m slowly working my way through.

  10. nicole says:

    Another reader crazy for short stories here. I decided to try doing one every Friday for my own blog, but it didn’t exactly work out. I still try to do one when I have time and nothing else scheduled for a Friday, but so often I just end up skipping it. Of course, part of my motivation was to try to get myself back into the habit of reading them, so it’s not working out so well!

    So I guess I don’t have great advice about the best way to approach it, except that I think you just have to do it, or it won’t get done…kind of like everything else.

    Okay, maybe this will help motivate me now too!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I’m sure if I make a plan for a weekly post, I’ll end up skipping it most of the time, which sort of defeats the purpose of the plan. I just want to figure out a way to make it a habit, but I’m not sure I can squeeze in one more reading habit!

  11. Simon T says:

    I have to be in the right mood for a short story… but I always seem to read collections straight through, and each time I think I should do it differently. But I’d just forget to do it, I think… The exception is Saki – he is by my bedside, read on nights when more than a couple of pages sounds too exhausting.

    I didn’t see Katherine Mansfield mentioned – have you read her, Queen of the Short Story?

    And Wish Her Safe At Home is so wonderfully odd, I think you’ll enjoy it :)

    Pleased to hear what you say about Howards End – my book group is doing it in February. I’ve read A Room With A View and A Passage to India – while I appreciated both of them, I couldn’t say I much liked either…

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly! If I do anything other than read straight through I’ll end up forgetting about it. I spend something like 3 months on Simone Weil’s very short essay collection because I’d set it aside and forget it for two or three weeks.

      I have read Mansfield, but not since my high school days. I know I liked the two or three stories I read, but I don’t remember anything more than that. I did almost buy a collection at the Persephone shop but opted for novellas instead.

      I’ve read both the other Forsters you mentioned, and I liked them, but Howards End outstrips them both by a long, long way, IMO. I hope you enjoy it!

  12. Dorothy W. says:

    I tend to read a story or an essay at a time, but I read them relatively frequently and sometimes a couple at a time, so it doesn’t take me too long to get through the book. I also don’t like having too many books underway at once, as it stresses me out. It’s hard to find the right system of reading, isn’t it?

  13. Christy says:

    I had a period of time too where I was all about the short stories. I had two anthologies of “Great” stories – American, World, etc. I remember “The Scarlet Ibis” and of course “The Gift of the Magi” is a classic. I have read several single author good short story collections, including Catherine Tudish’s Tenney’s Landing. But it is a form that I think I should make a concerted effort to start reading again.

    I love short non-fiction essays. This year I have really been into travel essays, and have read the 2009 and 2006 anthologies of the Best American Travel Writing. Sure, there are some lesser essays, but there are always some real gems that I’ve discovered in reading them.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve wondered about those travel-writing collections . I’ve read a few travel memoirs, and I find that a single author’s voice about a single trip (or type of trip) can get old after a while. But the idea of several different authors on several different kinds of journeys has appeal.

  14. Pingback: Sasha & The Short Story — Again | Sasha & The Silverfish

  15. Danielle says:

    I think I used to be afraid of short stories–as weird as that sounds. I liked the idea of a long novel–and how can you say something grand in only a few pages or even 30 pages. Somewhere along the way I started reading them here and there and now I love them–and yes, in the hands of a good author a lot can be conveyed in a little space! A few years back I read a story a week and posted every Sunday on them–I still have the links on my blog on one of my tabs. I tried to do the same thing with essays this year but have not had as much success. I tend to do better reading random stories in anthologies than reading collections (as then there is no pressure to finish a whole book) by one author but I do read them from time to time. This fall I’m going to read (I hope) a ghost story (or something similar) every Sunday. Lovely post–I enjoy reading your blog and am sorry I don’t get out to comment as much as I’d like–they are always so well thought out and written–you put me to shame as I’ve been feeling so lazy lately and unable to string a few good sentences together!

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I remember those short story posts! You were reading a collection of wartime stories at one point, weren’t you? I really enjoyed reading about those and thought the collection sounded great. I have lots of anthologies, mostly old textbooks, on my shelves, and I keep thinking it would be fun to dip into those every now and then, both for stories and for poems!

      And I totally hear where you’re coming from as far as commenting goes. I read lots more than I comment because I often just don’t quite know what to say in my comments, even when I enjoy a post. (Your book hauls are among my favorites!)

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