14 March 2010

My relationship with short stories

I have always admired short story writers for being able to tell a complete story, sometimes in only a handful of pages, because it’s not easy at all. I should know because I have only managed to write a couple that I am really happy with (and I don’t really know what an editor would make of them).

One of the regrets I had when I was studying English literature and language at university was that there was no special course on the short story among the available literature courses. I did read and even analyse a fair number of them as parts of several courses, but it was more because some teachers wanted to cram as many authors into their courses as possible than from a real desire to explore the short story as an art form. The most memorable of these was Shirley Jackson’s chilling tale “The Lottery”, by many considered to be the most perfect example of a short story in existence. I haven’t read enough short stories to judge that for myself, but I know that I have read more scary short stories than I have any other kind (with the possible exception of mysteries) and it is a stand-out among those.

I tend to devour short stories by the book, and setting myself the challenge of one per day is an attempt to slow down that pace so I can appreciate them as single units rather than in relation to other stories in the same collection. By breaking up the single author collections and jumping between themes every day, I have, I think, managed to keep my mind fresh and open and better able to appreciate the stories for themselves and keep the challenge fresh. I haven’t read any really awful ones yet, although the first Hawthorne story I read came close, with its incredibly saccharine tone, but even that had a clear purpose: to make the unpleasantness of the theme and the criticism of the wrongdoers - the story being based around real events - more palatable to the descendants of the very people he was criticising.

In most of the short story collections I own the stories were not written to be published together, but were originally published singly in literary magazines and later anthologised. When they were not, they were written especially for themed anthologies with stories by several or many authors. Of course, there are exceptions – authors sometimes do write short stories that are meant to be read together like novels (e.g. The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie, which I own but am not including in the challenge), but for the most part they are better appreciated singly than one right after the other. At the end of the year I hope I will have formed enough of a short story-reading habit to continue reading them in this manner without making a challenge of it.

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