Friday, April 15, 2011

Do You Think You Can Read Just One? 5 Great Short Stories

A recent news story in the Guardian called Is the short story really the novel's poor relation? got me thinking about the short story as a literary form. It is perhaps a tired debate: some people like short stories, some people don't. Really, isn't that kind of the nature of life? Fans of something will always be trying to win non-fans over to the thing they are passionate about.

I like short stories, but I prefer novels. But, I would also say that I think the really great short stories I've read over the years stick in my mind more strongly than even my favourite novels. Because of their very nature—i.e. that they are short—short stories offer a brilliantly distilled reading experience that a novel—drawn out over many chapters—often cannot. So, why do I still not consider myself a fan of the form?

I've come to think that my problem is one of approach. As a novel reader, when a pick up a new book, I anticipate that I'll read it cover to cover. When I pick up a collection of short stories, I'm inclined to do the same, but sometimes jumping in and out of multiple pieces just isn't what I want to do and the repeated introduction of new characters and new themes is more tiring than enjoyable. But what if I read just one story, put the book aside, let myself mull it over, and came back later to try something else by that author (like I do with a novel)? If I didn't feel the need to rush on and through several stories before digesting the one, would I appreciate the form more?

Here are five great short stories I'm immensely glad I've read, and the books that they are printed in. If you find yourself daunted by a collection of stories, try one of these to get your feet wet. And if you're already a short story fan, take a spin through cover to cover.

Prints by Amanda Davis from Circling the Drain. The opening story in Davis' collection took my breath away. I don't often quote reviews from Amazon users but one on listed only as "a customer" really hits the nail on the head: "[Davis] gets more out of five pages than most writers get out of an entire novel."

The Intruder by Andre Dubus from Dancing After Hours. Also the opener to a collection, this story has a quiet build to an intense climax. Another family tale: in just over 15 pages we are introduced and come to know a family, witnessing an event that has a profound impact in the short and long term.

Alice and Roy from In A Mist by Devon Code. A noir gem that travels from Fredericton, NB to New York City. When Roy writes a response to a letter to the editor that Alice sent to Downbeat magazine, the two end up connecting in person. Subtle and atmospheric with just the right amount of tension: read it twice to make sure you catch the twist.

A Private Experience by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from The Thing Around Your Neck. Although I read this collection cover to cover, this is the story that sticks out most in my mind. Two women flee a riot in an African city where ethnic tensions have spilled over. Hiding together in a closed store, the women—each from one of the ethnic groups that are fighting outside—share a moving experience that binds them together even as the world outside is torn apart.

Bartleby the Scriviner by Herman Melville from The Piazza Tales. I feel like I owe it to my undergrad professors to mention at least one short story that I read during university: this is one from my first year English Literature class. If memory serves me correctly, I don't think I was particularly struck by the story at the time, but it left a lasting impression. Bartleby's refusal to participate in the world around him and the image of a man who was beaten down by the world is haunting to me. However, "I would prefer not to" is still in my mind the best answer when someone asks you to do something you don't want to.

Five short stories not enough? Click through to this post from last summer where I mentioned two other greats from the 2010 edition of Best American Short Stories.

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