I’m a fan of short stories. I love reading them and trying to write them. In my opinion, they have almost nothing in common with novels. My expectation and experience of them are quite different.
I first fell in love with Science Fiction through short stories. They tended to move fast, challenging me to keep up so that I could figure out the point they wanted to make.
Mainstream short stories are sometimes like that but the ones that hold my attention best aren’t didactic, they’re experiential. They don’t make a point, they make a place or a person or a situation vividly real. They are the ultimate close-up, focusing my mind far more sharply than reality ever can. Their challenge is not for me to keep up but to stay open to the experience, to step back from plot or even narrative and soak up everything the text has to offer.
Brandon Taylor understands what short stories really are. In his excellent article “Against The Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes” , he explains why those who expected the short story to become the reading matter of choice in an allegedly short attention span culture got it wrong. Short stories, he reminds us, are not fiction-lite. They are dense and intense, They are not the fast fix candy of the literary world but rather the slow-release dishes that continue to nourish you long after the meal is over.
This made me reflect on how I read and review short story collections. I’m normally a linear reader. I’m obsessive about starting a series of novels with the first book and then reading them in sequence. I read novels from the title page to the last page. I don’t skip or skim or dip in for a non-sequential taste. With short story collections, I browse the contents page like a menu. I know I’m going to eat everything eventually but the sequence will depend on what I’m hungry for. Short stories are not chapters. They are not fragments. Each story is the whole thing, all by itself. My ideal short story collection would come with an iTunes “shuffle” option.
It takes me much longer to read short story collection than it does to read a novel of the same length because I need to take time to digest each story before I start another. If I don’t take a break, I find myself perception of the stories being shaped by a kind of gestalt effect, a need to make connections between the stories that first them into a pattern, whether or not one was intended by the author. As Forrest Gump might have said, “Short story collections are like a box of chocolates – if you eat them all one after another they all start to taste the same.”
When I’m reviewing a short story collection, I start by listing the story titles, then, as I read a story, I capture my thoughts on that story in rough notes. When I’ve read the collection, I review the notes and finally allow myself to ask if the collection is, in some way, more than the sum of the stories and whether my perception of any of the stories has changed after reading them all.
I’m currently reading Danielle McLaughlin’s short story collection, “Dinosaurs On Other Planets”.Here’s an example of the notes I’ve made on the first story: “The Art Of Footbinding”.
We are presented with a woman trying to hold on to a husband she is fearful of losing and struggling to assert authority over an increasingly contemptuous and unhappy teenage daughter. Descriptions of the art of footbinding, that read as if they are from a very old Chinese handbook for footbinders, are placed between the unfolding events. That the daughter then starts to bind her own feet, allegedly as part of a homework assignment, links the two streams of text.
I like the words that are left unsaid and the relationships and meanings that are left implicit in this story. The effect is to make the story more truthful and more compelling.
I was left to consider what I thought about the things women are willing to do or are made to or push their daughters into doing in order not to be abandoned.
I wasn’t told what to think. I was invited to consider. I liked that. It’s something a short story is uniquely positioned to do.
This process lets me savour each story for itself.
It strikes me that getting the best out of reading a short story collection is like getting the best from kissing. Your attention should not wander onto what may follow on from the current kiss not should you be occupied with comparing the current kiss to the last. All your attention should be on the kiss that is happening right now.