Love of short fiction

May is not just one of the loveliest months for blossom, it’s also a time for celebrating short stories. Love writing them? Love reading them? Or do you need convincing?

May happens to be International Short Story Month. This week, I took a turn at hosting the twitter account for Women Writers Network and found myself immersed in questions about the short story.

Last week one of our followers said she felt that she was missing out because she didn’t connect so well with short stories. Her question stayed in my mind. I know why I like writing them but what’s so great about reading them? We asked our members. Some of the answers were surprising! If you have twitter you can read all about it here.

Short fiction WWN pinned tweet

I also went looking for some great articles on writing and reading short stories. This one, ‘The World at an Angle: reasons to love short stories’, is a smasher. Daisy Johnson writes ‘critically, emotionally … ecstatically’ about what the short story means to her. To pick out out a couple of quotes – short stories are: ‘bright flashes, suddenly illuminating everything, while also throwing everything into shadow’; they ‘often fearlessly occupy a space of weirdness’.

That captures some of the appeal for me as a writer and as a reader. She also addresses the question of why some readers will say they don’t get along with short stories, preferring novels, by pointing out that it’s no use trying to put them in the same box (no more than we would compare novels to poetry).

My own feeling is that we read short stories in a different way. The novel invites us to immerse ourselves in a world and read on way past our bedtime or bus stop. A short story can be read at one sitting and then it might be a good idea to get up. Let it stay with you a while. Possibly the rest of your life. They can detonate a small explosion in your heart, soul or brain and leave you wondering about the glimpse of a world you’ve seen.

If I’m reading a short story collection I often read one story in the morning and one at night. I might also have a novel on the go if I fancy a long swim in literature as well as a short dip. To be fair, short stories can vary considerably in length from a paragraph to several pages.

But to try another metaphor: if a novel is a latte or a cappucino, then a short story is more like an espresso. Italians apparently only drink milky coffee in the mornings while an espresso goes well at any time of day and can be fitted into a busy life.

Perhaps we just don’t come across them enough in our day to day reading (speaking from a UK point of view). In the USA we still see find short stories regularly in print magazines of high quality, like The New Yorker. I share a link to a particularly fine short story that occupies that place of weirdness in an otherwise ordinary world: ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders, who also wrote the novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Sticking with the men for the moment, I also found some advice on writing by Ernest Hemingway, through this post by Short Story Scribe. It’s recycled from this post by Open Culture, which in turn lists just a few of the gems from a book called Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Though some of it applies to novels, there’s this, which applies to anything and may prove useful to writers struggling to get their work done (or even started) that day. Even EH had to tell himself: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

White May (Hawthorn)
White May blossom. (Hawthorn)

Another piece of advice from Hemingway is to read the classics and measure yourself against those writers. It’s interesting to note that there was a time when Hemingway’s prose was not lauded and understood. Gertrude Stein suggested he stick to poetry.

It can take a while for a style to be accepted and understood. That’s part of the difficulty of writing in an original way. People need to understand that it’s good before they will open themselves to reading it. In another context, I remember one of my young relatives not liking Harry Potter when it first came out. Dismissing it, in fact. Later, I found her reading avidly.

‘I thought you didn’t like it?’ I said.

‘I didn’t but someone’s explained it to me now,’ she answered.

By which I think she meant, someone’s explained that it’s good and why. Or perhaps it had sunk in that lots of people liked it and she ought to read it if she wanted to be able to talk about it with her friends.

This is the sticky path for a writer for if something gets ‘too popular’ some people will go off it again preferring perhaps ‘the originality of the early work’. I’m not quoting anyone about anything there, just snatching words from the ether.

Meanwhile, when thinking of the classics, I go to Chekhov and above all (back to a woman at last) my all-time love, Katherine Mansfield. I have heard it said that ‘nothing happens’ in her work, but for me it was startling (as a teenager) to realise that other people, even characters in a novel, could have very different inner lives to the ones they negotiate outwardly. I read her with a fabulous sense of recognition that this is how it could be done. It made me feel there was someone in the world who would understand me (if only she wasn’t so long dead). She is best known for The Garden Party and other stories and Bliss and other stories, but I also loved The Aloe, which in a shorter version was published as ‘Prelude’ in Bliss

Unfortunately for us, she died young, but her work left such a legacy that we have today a Katherine Mansfield Society ‘set up to promote and encourage the worldwide study and enjoyment of Katherine Mansfield’s writing’. For a sample here’s a link they offer to a pdf of her short story ‘The Garden Party’

Pink May

Coming back to the present day, there was a very interesting (V.I.) programme on Radio 4’s ‘Inside Science’ on ‘The Science of Storytelling’. How our brains are wired to respond to stories. Why we take note of the unexpected, for instance. Well worth a listen imho.

Back to the post post-modern world: there are many wonderful collections of short stories to enjoy by contemporary writers. Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular for one: I found her by looking at the regular weekend read from For Books’ Sake. If you have recommendations please share in the comments.

I can’t finish without mentioning the work of Fay Weldon, whose generosity in liking and endorsing my own collection of short stories Pumping Up Napoleon led me to ask again if she would do the same with my debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder. Her short story ‘Weekend’ is one of those that inspired me in my early days of writing short fiction. It’s just one of the delights of her 2015 ‘best of’ short story collection Mischief. She’s a wonderful writer and a wonderfully kind person too. I can’t thank her enough.

If you’re fond of very short fiction – sometimes known as ‘flash’ – I recommend writing for or reading from Paragraph Planet – which features a daily 75-word story (sometimes includes an extract from a novel if that works as a standalone). My tiny story ‘Basket’ was published there though I don’t think it’s been archived yet. It was a much better story for being honed to that length. Everything non-essential had to go and for someone with a tendency to wander off that can be a blessing.

Last but not etc … I must mention that Short Story Month sponsors International Short Story Month in May. Also tweeting here

Short Story Month is in turned sponsored by A Story a Day – where you can find a daily writing prompt.

I meant this to be a short post but it grew and we have only just begun to talk about short stories. As I am aware of so many I have not mentioned, please help me out by naming stories or writers you love in the comments so we can share those too.

I am also aware that different countries and different cultures may have quite different experiences of writing and reading short stories and would love to hear about those.

Finally, perhaps you have spotted that the title of the post is a play on the title of a short story by Helen Dunmore? Love of Fat Men is also the title of a collection. Helen Dunmore is much missed as a creator of wonderful short as well as long fiction. At least we have still have her legacy.

Enjoy writing; enjoy reading. Thank you for coming this far! Please like, share and comment if you can.


22 thoughts on “Love of short fiction

  1. What an inspiring post, Maria. Thank you so much. It’s inspired me to continuing writing my stories, crafting them the best I can. Here are a couple of authors you might enjoy: K.D. Miller, Late Breaking. From the back cover, “A deft, nuanced, and human collection of stories. K.D. Miller’s gaze catches both humor and darkness in a wide variety of relationships. A thoroughly captivating book.” Lauren Acampora, The Wonder Garden. From the back cover, “Well-drawn characters, interesting plots, cultural zingers and dead-on critiques of consumerism.” Both collections weave characters throughout the collection. I like that, seeing who pops up in a later story. Extremely well written and definitely something to aspire to! Give them a try. You won’t be disappointed. Also, thanks for the mention of Fay Weldon. I’ll check her out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this worthy tribute to the short story. Great quotes, recommendations, and analyses here. I didn’t know about Helen Dunmore’s short story collection, and Speak Gigantular sounds fascinating too.

    I love Raymond Carver’s short stories such as Cathedral, and A Small, Good Thing. Also Tania Hershman’s My Mother is an Upright Piano has always seemed to me a perfect example of very short fiction.

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    1. I know you’re a short story prize winner yourself, Tia, so it’s great to get your comment and recommendations. Carver is such an interesting one because I love his stories and his style seemed so distinctive and then I found out his editor did much of the cutting, apparently. Used to be a very interesting one to show students: the before and after! Brilliant results I thought, but some preferred his lengthier original and were aghast an editor could change so much. Tania Hershman brings us right back up to date. I haven’t read that one and will do so after this. Thanks very much!

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  3. Wonderful article, Maria. I do like the Daisy Johnson quote about how short stories can ‘often fearlessly occupy a space of weirdness’. I think the short story has free rein to run and be as weird as it likes, whereas a novel packed with weirdness can be too much to take on board. And talking about space of weirdness, one of my favourite short story writers has to be J G Ballard. I love dipping into his weird worlds for a short time, but perhaps not for too long in some of them. Favourites are too many to mention, but here are a few… ‘Memories of The Space Age’; ‘Garden of Time’, and ‘The Last World of Mr. Goddard’.

    One of my other favourite short story writers is M.R.James and his ghost stories…guaranteed to unnerve you even on the brightest of summer days. The ones that will remain lodged in my mind are ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll come for you, my lad’; ‘Number 13’, and ‘A View From A Hill’. I think the short story style is perfect for a ghostly tale…leaves a lot to your imagination afterwards.

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    1. Thanks for being so generous with the comments! It’s great to have your thoughts and recommendations. Am still haunted my M R James and also a fan of J G Ballard. ‘The Drowned Giant’ is another of those where the situation – and the weirdness – seem to fit perfectly with the short form. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Maria, this is such a great post. I’ve had it open for a while, ready to reply but I don’t have the opportunity to absorb it properly and respond right now so I’m book-marking it to come back to at a quieter moment. I struggle with short stories; I seem to be very hard to please when it comes to a short story. I have vague plans to really get to grips with the genre and try to understand it better – and thus understand why I so often feel unsatisfied by it. You might just have given me the impetus to get started!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be marvellous! I know: I put in a lot of links and that’s just a taste. I hope you find something to inspire you to enjoy more short stories. Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’ was in my mind too as one that stayed with me so I was pleased to read about it on your blog. Thanks for your comment!

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  5. Lovely post, Maria. I do think your first question, about why we read short stories is important. I love short stories, but it took me a long time to understand how they work, and more importantly, how to read them. I find a lot of readers I talk to have the same problem.

    I’ve been leading adult reading groups for a few years now, and some of the most interesting discussions have come from the short story reading sessions. What I like, is an anthology of stories. I’ve discovered so many interesting stories and writers that way. That’s how I came to appreciate Rudyard Kipling, who I’d thought of as too stylised and out-dated. I read, Wireless, in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, and got hooked on his short fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I agree that anthologies can be a great way to find out whether you like a certain writer as the choices are put before you. The other side of that is a multitude of voices as well as stories. I think short stories must work well for shared reading. It’s good to challenge our assumptions about certain writers too. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cath.

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  6. Wonderful post, Maria – and glorious flowers. So many great short stories out there! In Australia, publishers tend to steer clear of short stories but I’m not sure if this is because the average Aussie doesn’t read them. People will tell me they don’t like short stories or anthologies but willingly read poetry. I think a poem is a short story….Also, I think the short form is harder to write and good discipline for a writer. I recently read a compilation ‘We Are Not The Same Anymore’ by Australian author Chris Somerville, domestic scenes and everyday life as people uncomfortably try to care for each other.

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    1. You have a point there, especially when it comes to flash fiction: poet Tony Curtis once took a micro-story of mine, put in line breaks, handed it back and declared it to be a poem. I think there’s something about rhythm and compression and a particular use of language that can make a short story feel heightened. I like the sound of that compilation btw. Am such a fan of short stories and welcome the recommendation and insights into the Australian psyche! Thanks for your thoughts, as always, Gretchen.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love all things short stories! I found out short stories and flash were really my niche after hearing Julie Duffy talk on DIYMFA’s podcast! I love all kinds of short story writers but esp. Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Amber Sparks, and Karen Russell.

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