In praise of short stories

Short stories are flourishing at the moment. Both the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) are applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. It’s a form that embraces many genres, styles, plots, and approaches. A recent innovation was the sale by Penguin of a single short story, in electronic form (£2.99) well as in hardback (£7.99): The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith. It’s an attractive innovation and has probably only happened because electronic versions are economically viable.

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I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral tradition (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer says that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend recently introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

Short stories have often provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention just a few. There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s (see for example the Showalter Collection below) and women have continued to make significant contributions to the form ever since (see the Angela Carter anthology for a superb selection).

Perhaps because the platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great novels, publishers don’t like collections of short stories, except by established authors, or so we are frequently told. But this is hardly true of some of the smaller publishers (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what sections of the reading public say they want to buy.)

Most how to write fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

Here is are five of my current favourite short story writers (not in any order and not necessarily the top five either – just five to celebrate):

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  1. Raymond Carver (Vintage)
  2. Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)
  3. Molly Panter-Downes (Persephone)
  4. Angela Carter (Virago)
  5. Flannery O’Connor (Faber)

And five of my favourite anthologies (again, not in order and five to celebrate):

  1. Persephone Book of Short Stories
  2. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series (Salt) – annually
  3. BBC National Short Story – annually
  4. Angela Carter (Ed), Wayward Girls and Wicked Women (Virago)
  5. Elaine Showalter (Ed) Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle. (Virago)

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Regular readers of this blog will know I am reading through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels at the moment. When I have read them all I will start on her collected short stories. What a treat that will be.

Tessa Hadley’s top ten short stories can be found here. Her list is dominated by established novel writers: DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, Nadine Gordimer, John McGahern, but includes stalwarts such Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka and, of course, Alice Munro. She has identified particular stories.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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6 Responses to In praise of short stories

  1. Eileen

    Yes, I’ve always loved short stories. I am reading a new collection by Tim Moss called Close to the Edge. These promise a twist in the tale which I love although I’ve spotted the upcoming twist well before the end in a couple of them.
    I have been writing a short story, in my head, for the last two years so I’ll get a copy of Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story. Thanks very much Caroline.

  2. Hi Eileen, I’m looking forward to reading your short story. It will be well incubated.

  3. Great and timely post! Thanks for reminding me I need to pick up something by Alice Munro!!!! So, I’ve only become a fan of the short story a little over a year ago. I read Leaf Story by Gabriela Garcia Marquez and was really blown away. (No pun intended.) (Okay, maybe a little bit!) Then I read The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman and another collection by Joyce Carol Oates. Very cool, all of them! I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read the anthologies. I really love collections that have a centered themed… but, you know, never say never!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for adding to my list, Heidi. I’ve not read any of these – yet! One of the great things about short stories i did not mention is that they wait for you in a less threatening way than novels do. My piles of novels can be quite daunting. But the anthologies and collections just sit quiety. Good stories, just waiting to be read. Thanks for making me think of that. Enjoy whatever you are reading.

  4. Anne

    Here I can respond to your last two blogs. With my Kindle I was able to download in the twinkling of an eye Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories as recently published by Virago with an introduction by her daughter. The Kindle is a particularly good place to store up short stories and yes- I have downloaded a number of “shorts” for reading when I am travelling or get caught out on a delayed journey. The great advantage of the Kindle is its portability and your ability to pick and choose from your portable “library” whatever you fancy reading.
    I love short stories, I always have enjoyed reading them and wondering how the author has had the skill to encapsulate a whole world in a few pages. I liked Nadime Gordimer’s quote. I find that the narratives of short stories don’t linger in the memory as much as in full novels and so I can return to a short story and find myself reading it as if for the first time. I am looking forward to rereading “The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield” which I have only read once and that before I read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography ( also on my Kindle and downloaded on a whim.)
    I would recommend Margaret Drabble’s collection “A Day in the Life of Smiling Woman” published by Penguin with an excellent introduction by academic Jose Francisco Fernandez. I have grown up with Margaret Drabble, having started to read her as a teenager and so to follow this chronological collection of her short stories was very rewarding.

  5. Caroline

    Thanks for these comments. Interesting as always.
    The evidence is mounting that I could enjoy Kindle use!
    Thanks for your suggestions for short stories, and I agree about the Margaret Drabble collection. I enjoyed it too.

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