No Time for Novels? Pick Up a Short Story


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Photo by Marina van den Boorn

I get this question a lot: How do you have time to read? The answer is, sometimes I don’t. Like you, I have to work, go to meetings, take my kids to their activities and volunteer at their schools, make sure there’s milk in the refrigerator (sometimes), and fit in an occasional dinner with my husband and lunch with my friends. I’m also addicted to a bevy of TV shows, from Downton Abbey to Homeland to Project Runway, not to mention, getting my fix of nightly news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And I must maintain my ever-growing e-mail correspondence while also finding time to troll Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest a few hundred times a day to see what everyone else is doing, posting, and pinning. Man, come to think of it, how do I have time to read?

If we believe what we’re told, our schedules are getting fuller, our attention spans are becoming shorter, and our free time is growing increasingly scarce. Whether you blame smartphones, social media, or some other evil of modern life, we seem to suffer from an inability to sit, focus, and tune out the distractions of our world.  The times in which we live just don’t seem conducive to reading.

But what if we tried something a little less demanding than a novel, yet a little more challenging than a friend’s Facebook post? What if we picked up a short story?

220px-Alice_Ann_Munro_(cropped)Yesterday, a short story writer took the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. Alice Munro, whom the Swedish Academy calls “master of the contemporary short story,” is an 82-year-old Canadian writer whose body of work includes 14 short story collections—and no novels. In a phone interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., just after finding out she’d won, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

There’s some defensiveness in Munro’s tone. Despite her achievements, the comparison between short story writers and novelists is evidently one she’s been plagued by during her career. She even makes reference to it in a story she wrote called “Fiction,” in which the main character, Joyce, comes across a book published by a significant someone she knows: “How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”

So why is it that a writer—a winner of the Nobel Prize, no less—has to defend her medium? What is it about the genre of short stories that makes people, both readers and writers, defensive? No matter how many writers produce them, no matter how many prizes they win, short stories seem to necessitate a Stuart Smalley–style affirmation: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”

So, is a short story a fully realized form that can stand on its own merits, or simply a genre that’s “hanging on to the gates of Literature,” desperately hoping to get inside?

A few writers have tackled this question head-on, making a case that the short story is actually superior to the novel. Author Nadine Gordimer depicts the difference in vivid terms, saying that, more than novels, short stories capture “the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. . . . Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.” In our hectic world, catching fireflies is almost a lost art. But when a writer manages to do it in the form of a short story, we can share in that feeling while reading it—that momentary, intense burst of pleasure that comes when we glimpse a firefly on a summer night, or even when we manage to catch one in our hand.

Anton Chekhov, considered a god among short story writers everywhere, also believed in this genre, emphasizing the importance of creating fiction that is short, to the point, and not too taxing on the reader. Thanks, sir, for catering to our fleeting attention and our simple minds:

You understand it at once when I say, “The man sat on the grass”; you understand it because it is clear and makes no demands on the attention. On the other hand, it is not easily understood, and it is difficult for the mind, if I write, “A  tall, narrow-chested, middle-sized man, with a red beard, sat on the green grass, already trampled by pedestrians, sat silently, shyly, and timidly looked about him.”

Edgar Allan Poe, known for chilling tales like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” argues for the importance of brief fiction you can read all at once, without interruption:

[T]he unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting. . . . During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.

See? We don’t have to feel ashamed for not choosing a short read over, say, Pynchon’s Against the Day or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Short stories are a guiltless pleasure tailor-made for busy people like us. They don’t require more time, attention, or commitment than we have to give. And yet they still leave us satisfied and full in the same wonderful way that longer works of literature will.

If you want to catch the flash of a fictional firefly and give a short story a try, check out the reading suggestions below. Leave a comment if I’ve left out any of your favorites.

Here are a few recent short story collections garnering attention:

13530981Alice Munro, Dear Life

13503109Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her

13531832Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

15818259Jess Walter, We Live in Water

13641208George Saunders, Tenth of December

16248246Unnatural Creatures, collected and edited by Neil Gaiman

If you’re looking for something more classic, you can’t go wrong with these:

11012James Joyce, Dubliners

49011Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

11686John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever

51nLRerQ9tL._AA200_Raymond Carver, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love

519slDN7YzL._AA200_Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories

1030370Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Stories

51TUGGxmxiL._AA200_Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories

If you want to give Munro a quick look, you can read her short story “Fiction” online by clicking here, thanks to a site called Daily Lit.

And if you’re not sure who Stuart Smalley is, here’s a snippet from one of his SNL cameos:

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  1. 1
    Alison Doherty

    I love short stories. Alice Munro is actually one of my favorite authors. I love a lot of the collections of short stories you list. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter is another favorite of mine.

  2. 5
    Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2013 « The Snail on the Wall

    […] 1. Choosing the book to take the top spot on my best-of-2013 was easy. It goes to a novel that stands head and shoulders above most of the others listed below: Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. I loved this look inside the mysterious country that is North Korea and its bizarre, frightening political regime. This story within a story made me think back to that riveting movie The Usual Suspects, where tales unravel and the truth is always a little uncertain. If you haven’t read this prize-winning, critically acclaimed novel, put it at the top of your TBR pile pronto. 2. I enjoyed sampling this required-reading novel about bullying, social pressure, and acceptance before my middle-schooler did. I liked Wonder much more than I ever expected to, admiring Palacio’s ability to capture preteens at precisely where they are—the way they think, speak, and interact with one another. At times, I felt that I was eavesdropping on conversations between my own son and his friends. And, based on the way everything turns out, I’d be pleased to see and hear my own kids enact these characters’ transformation in their own lives. 3. It’s been a long while since I read this one, back in February or so. And by now, it’s made the rounds among book clubs, critics, blogs, and book store best-seller shelves. It’s the kind of novel that appeals to almost everyone, whether you prefer a dimestore romance or a more literary read. Moving back and forth between Hollywood and a beautiful Italian coastal destination, you’ll enjoy following both the made-up characters and a few real-life stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. 4. I’d be willing to wager that this book isn’t on any other blogger’s Best of 2013 list. HHhH was first published in France in 2009, and the English translation came out the following year. It garnered much praise from the critics then, but I picked it up this past summer before taking a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. Binet’s novel is set in World War II Prague, and it focuses on a little-known (to me, at least) Third Reich leader: Reinhard Heydrich, known as the butcher of Prague. While it’s probably edifying to read a Holocaust narrative every once in a while, I don’t typically expect to enjoy it. But this journalistic-style novel tells a different story in a different way. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes metafiction and the way it looks behind the authorial curtain. It’s also for history buffs and readers who might be curious about Prague’s position in WWII. I wasn’t curious when I first opened the book, but it didn’t take long to get hooked. 5. And, yes—it’s another Holocaust novel, coming in at #5. I adored Kate Atkinson’s 2004 book, Case Histories (one you should read if you somehow missed it), and I picked this one up based on that earlier work. While Life after Life didn’t make a huge impact on me at the time of reading, I find myself continuing to think about its premise: What does life look like when a past event—a birth, a relationship, a death—takes an entirely different trajectory? How might we be different? What happens when we get a second chance to take an alternate path? While Atkinson’s take on World War II didn’t make much of an impression on me, her story of heroine Ursula Todd’s life—and life, and life again—has haunted me for months.   6. This National Book Award–nominated novel is so beautifully written that readers may not even appreciate just how good it is. That’s the sort of sleight of hand that master storyteller Alice McDermott manages in all of her novels, from Charming Billy to Someone. Someone is a quiet, reflective book for mature readers who appreciate a nicely told story about a life well lived. You can read my complete review here. 7. Will we still be talking about this book in 100 years? Probably not—but, boy, we talked about it this year, and with good reason. It was a rip-roaring fun read, with characters that made us laugh, cry, and cringe (especially when we recognized ourselves in them). I applaud Maria Semple for finding a way to translate her gift for sitcom writing into fiction. 8. This book is sitting at my bedside, to be picked up whenever I’m in between novels and want to dip into a thoughtful essay. When it comes to Ann Patchett, I’m a real fangirl. I love every one of her novels, I enjoy visiting her indie book store in Nashville, and I have fond memories of hearing her speak at a local library event a few years ago. So I couldn’t wait to buy this recently published essay collection. Even for a die-hard admirer like me, the book doesn’t disappoint. Most anyone is likely to find a story in here that they relate to, whether it’s about marriage, traveling, books, or life in general. 9. I just finished this lovely novel about a teenage girl dealing with the loss of an uncle, who dies of AIDS. It hit shelves over a year ago, but I have some fellow bloggers to thank for recently encouraging me to pick it up. I sped through it during my post-holiday downtime; it was smooth easy reading but with real depth and dimension. I look forward to more compelling books from debut author Carol Rifka Brunt. 10. I admit to not having read last year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature (Mo Yan, 2012) or  the year before that (Tomas Tranströmer, 2011). So I am pleased to read and recommend this year’s winner, Alice Munro. Dear Life is the latest in a long line of story collections for Munro, and, like the others, it proves the art of short-story writing. For more on Alice Munro and the genre of short stories, see my October 11 blog post here. […]

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