I’ve had quite the journey with short stories over the past few months. I started off convinced they weren’t for me, but willing to give them a proper go. And with an open mind, I tried, I really tried, to like them, but I’ve been mostly unsuccessful.
I spent a long time avoiding the Alice Munro collection, convinced that if I didn’t like them it would mean there was something wrong with me; they were my last chance saloon. Well, I entered that saloon and what I’m about to say makes me nervous because the Spanish chapter of the Alice Munro fanclub once retweeted something I wrote, but I just can’t keep it in. I read Dear Life and…I didn’t love it. But I am definitely willing to accept that the fault lies in me.
Not liking these caused me to do some more soul searching and I think I have nailed down a few solid reasons as to why short stories and I just don’t get on.
One major problem is that it takes me a while to really get into a novel – I like to let things wash over me, and reading a short story forces me to concentrate the whole way through. I only have a short amount of time to get to know the characters, so if I miss something crucial early on, then I’m essentially confused from start to finish. Whereas in a novel, if I’ve missed (or, more likely, forgotten) who a character is, I’ve got time to catch the drift eventually. (On a side note, I wonder whether reading short stories might actually be good for me, as they would force me to be more mindful in my reading.)
The second major issue for me is that I like context, and I don’t think there is enough time in a short story to create proper context. The only Munro stories in the collection that I really enjoyed were the ones that she said were autobiographical, and I think the reason I liked these is that there was a point to them. There was a larger context to the stories, not just a couple of characters floating around in the ether.
I also feel like short stories need to be profound, or meaningful, or weird, or confusing, or a mixture of all of these things. There isn’t enough room to sprawl into a beautiful story; you can’t have a quiet short story, because what would be the point? Therefore, they are inevitably confusing in their attempts to be profound and they often end abruptly with no seeming resolution.
The stories have to pack a punch in order for people the remember them, or want to keep thinking about them. Because if you just sit down and read a book of short stories cover to cover, it’s inevitable that you’ll forget some of the ones you have read, or confuse the stories with each other. Which makes me think that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve been reading a collection like it’s a book – when maybe I should be reading each story likes it’s a book. Giving it time to sink in after each one, and not just turning the page at the end like it’s the end of a chapter.
I’m not quite ready to give up on this journey – too many people I trust have talked about loving short story collections – but I think I’m going to change tack a little. So far, the short stories I’ve read have all been set in the ‘real world’, which I don’t think necessarily lends itself to punchy story-telling. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Karen Russell and the weird and wonderful worlds she creates, so maybe I’ll start there. Any other recommendations?
Categories: Book life