Tag Archives: Edith Pearlman

More praise for short stories

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

Alice Munro

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 recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

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?

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Filed under Books, short stories, Writing

A little outburst about favourite books and authors

As far as books are concerned I don’t do favourites. I couldn’t tell you about my favourite book and I don’t have a favourite author. The very concept of ‘favourite’ makes me churn. I risk being thought pedantic, again, but read my 5 reasons about why I dislike the idea so much and see if you agree.

171 heart.svg

  1. The idea of favourites is more appropriately applied to colours or animals or even numbers when you are six years old and trying to understand the vast and various world in which you find yourself.
  2. A favourite is claimed as if it were a personal whim – almost random and certainly something to be proud of. It’s to do with making a statement about one-self, not about the qualities of the books/authors. ‘I don’t know why, but I just love anything by John Smith.’ You’ve heard that kind of thing?
  3. To have a favourite book or author is to approach it with a lack of discernment, judgement and it values sameness above all. What does one expect from a favourite except the same again? As a child I read every Enid Blyton book going. Judith Lovell was ill and had left her entire collection in our dorm while she recovered in Dar es Salaam. We devoured them until we began to realise they were so much the same that they bored us. Formulaic was not a word we used at the time, but that’s what we thought of them. We invented a workshop where Enid Blyton gave the ideas to elves and they concocted books to her recipes. And then we gave up reading Enid Blyton and moved on to Malcolm Saville. That’s what you hope to get from favourites – more of the same.

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

  4. Having favourites is encouraged by Twitter, with its ‘favourite’ button. I expect lots of twits (as a friend calls us), use it to save the tweet for later, as I do. It’s as easy as ‘like’ on FaceBook. Which leads to difficult verbs such as ‘unfavourite’, ‘unlike’ or the dreaded (and dreadful) ‘unfriend’.
  5. 171 star.svgOn the other hand, to say ‘one of my favourites’ is okay. I don’t think I’m being inconsistent here. One of my favourite novelists is Anne Tyler, but there are so many good writers it would be silly to say she was the one above all others, especially as her many books are of variable quality. Yes really. All good, and some very good indeed. And one of my favourite books is Pride and Prejudice, another is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and another A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and Middlemarch by George Eliot and … One of my favourites means this is a book/author I recommend.

So, do you agree with me – fixing on favourite authors and books does not encourage bold readers?


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Filed under Books, Reading

Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

What a find! Have you read Edith Pearlman’s collection? For good writing you would do not better than read this generous collection of short stories, mentioned frequently last year in book-of-the-year lists. And a friend recommended it to me – thank you Marianne.

106 Bin Vis coverThe virtues of the collection are extolled in the introduction by Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto):

What you have in your hands now is a treasure, a book you could take to a desert island knowing that every time you got to the end you could simply turn to the front cover and start it all again. It is not a collection of bus crashes, junkie, and despair. Despair is much easier to write about than self-reliance. These stories are an exercise in imagination and compassion, a trip around the world, an example of what happens when talent meets discipline and a stunning intelligence. This collection offers a look at an artist at the height of her powers. Once you have read it, I hope you will go forth and spread the news. Edith Pearlman has been a secret much too long. (p11)

I have included it in the older women in fiction series for two reasons. First Edith Pearlman is an older woman writing fiction. She is 78 today. From the cover:

Edith Pearlman published her debut collection of stories in 1996, aged 60. She has published over 250 works of short fiction, to huge critical acclaim, and won numerous prizes including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Binocular Vision and the PEN/Malamud Award. (From the back cover of the Pushkin Press edition, 2011)

Second, the collection includes many characters who can be defined as older women. Here are 34 stories in 418 pages (about 12 pages per story); 13 of them under the heading of new stories. Most of the older women can be found in these newer stories.

Edith Pearlman’s stories, however, are not about older women specifically. They are populated by people of all kinds and ages: old and young, children, men and women, many of them from Jewish families, and many migrants. Several stories are set in Godolphin (a made-up suburb of Boston), but others take place in Europe, South America, Israel, Russia.

It is very refreshing to read stories that include older characters but are not necessarily about ageing. Or rather they are about ageing as much as they are about rubbing along together, loving people with all their faults, changing lives, and the impact of having children. Lonely people are befriended and lives are changed. A child has an insight into the adult world and takes another step into independence. In these stories, characters are caught in the everyday where nothing much out of the ordinary happens.

106 Edith PearlmanShe is a very sharp writer, one with a generous view of humans, in all their failings and attempts to make good. Most of these stories are about the relationships between people. People who are displaced, perhaps, or from different generations, or who arrive in one circumstance and have to adjust.

Here is an older couple just beginning to accommodate to each other after a sudden and unlikely marriage in Elder Jinks:

They looked at each other for a while.

“I’m Grace,” she said after at last.

“I’m Gustave” – and how his heart leaped. “I’d like to . . . get to know you.”

Another long pause while he belatedly considered the dangers in so ambitious an enterprise, for he too would have to be known, and his shabby secrets revealed, and his out-of-date convictions as well. They’d endure necessary disappointments, and they’d practice necessary forgivenesses, careful to note which subjects left the other fraught. Grace’s mind moved along the same lines. Each elected to take the risk, Gustave showed his willingness by touching the lovely face, Grace hers by disdaining eclipsis. “Me too,” was all she said. (p385)

I don’t think it matters that eclipsis is a rare word. (It means the omission of parts of a word or sentence; more usually – ellipsis.) The import of this moment, which is in fact a reprise of an earlier exchange, is beautifully paced, as if they must both take a deep breath.

She includes details that, with minimal words, lead you to understand her characters. Consider the opening of Settlers:

One early Sunday morning Peter Loy stood waiting for the bus downtown. It was October and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen-plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his height and thinness and longish hair he’d look like Sherlock Holmes when wearing it. Instead he looked like a dowager. (p40)

In just over 100 words, the reader quickly gains a visual image of Peter Loy, and something of his character.

She is also mistress of the sudden image like an unexpected jewel. Here’s Valerie Gordon, an older nannie in the park in Vallies:

British au pairs avoided her as if she were a headmistress. Scandinavians smiled at her as if she were a pet. The mommies – there were some of these, too, unmannerly – ignored her entirely: they were too busy boasting about their children as if someday they meant to sell them. (p389)

Woah! And from The Little Wife:

… awake as if she had been smacked … (p292)

106 EP sittingExplore these wonderful stories yourself. You can hear her reading The Story on the Pushkin Press website. For an insightful review of the connections between her stories see Andrea Nolan’s review on Fiction Writers Review Blog.

Have you read Binocular Vision? How did you react? What did you think of the older women in her stories?


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews