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.
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.”
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’
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.
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.