In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.
Now is the time of the short story
Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.
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 traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).
According to William 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 said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.
Reading short stories
I love reading 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 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.
It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)
Writing short stories
Short stories have 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 a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.
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 Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]
My recommended short story writers (with some links):
- Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)
- Raymond Carver (Vintage)
- Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)
- Edith Pearlman (Pushkin)
- Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)
And five collections to recommend:
- Persephone Book of Short Stories
- The Best British Short Stories series, an annual publication edited by Nicholas Royle (Salt)
- Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes (Peirene)
- Dorothy Whipple (Persephone)
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (can also be thought of as a novel because the stories are linked and develop the main character. (Simon & Schuster)
Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.
When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:
- Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
- Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
- Katherine Mansfield
- Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Over to you
Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?
To subscribe and receive email notification of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.