Publishers have difficulty persuading readers to buy short story collections. Many readers love them, but more readers avoid them, preferring the novel. Why is this? Fiction writer Tessa Hadley suggests it is because in our culture, readers have grown used to the habit of the novel, we can pick up a novel and put it down time after time, when it opens we re-enter its world, escaping our own for a while. There’s something discontinuous about our reading relationship with short stories. At the end of each story we are thrown out of that world created by the chosen words of the author enhanced by our imagination, back into our surroundings without leaving a thread; we then enter another story and begin to build a new picture of characters, place and situations.
Reflecting on this now, I wonder if that is why I liked Alice Hoffman’s ‘Blackbird House’ so much, because of the subtle connection between the stories which kept me wanting to go back for more. Or was it the writer’s style? I love this book, a unique set of short stories that traces the lives of various occupants of an old Massachusetts house over a span of 200 years, witnessing change in each family through their loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.
I like reading short stories, especially in between reading novels or other more lengthy works of non-fiction. There are some short stories in particular that I adore, like the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s ‘The Enchanted Garden’ from his collection of short stories ‘Difficult Loves’. Giovannino and Serenella discover an opening in a hedge leading them into a quiet garden of flower beds, eucalyptus trees and gravel paths, it’s like a mini version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’, still a favourite today. And then there’s A.S.Byatt’s ‘Stone Woman’ from her ‘Little Black Book of Stories’ the haunting tale of a woman witnessing her own gradual metamorphosis into stone; befriending an Icelandic stone carver she returns to East Iceland, the place that will become her final resting place.
For me, an avid reader, short stories are like the contents of extravagant chocolate boxes or the pick n mix gâteaux at Béchard on the Cours Mirabeau here in Aix en Provence. When I’m into reading short stories, I don’t just take one collection, I take three or four and then read a story or two from each collection, so I sample more than one writer at a time.
Why do I do this? Well firstly, because for me short story collections are like ‘1001 Nights’, I don’t want the collections to end, so I slow down the process to savour the stories. Secondly, I like to sample writers from different countries, so today I might read from Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s collection ‘Stars of the New Curfew’ set in the teeming street of Lagos, or ‘Sandpiper’ Egyptian writer Adhaf Soueif’s collection about women finding themselves in countries other than their own, where language, culture and love create confusion.
The collection I have now remind me that I love to travel through books both to foreign destinations and through the minds of writers from different countries and cultures as well as returning to the familiar vernacular of my country of birth.
In addition to those mentioned I might dip into Elliot Perlman’s (Australian) ‘the reasons I won’t be coming’, Alice Munro’s (Canadian) ‘Friend of my Youth’; Janet Frame’s ‘The Lagoon’, Keri Hulme’s ‘Stonefish’ and ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ (New Zealand writers), Indian writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Arranged Marriage’ and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ or Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ which reminds me I want to read the Japanese writer Haruki Murikami’s ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’. Then there are the slim classics ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce who needs no introduction and Grace Paley’s ‘The Little Disturbances of Man’. And I’m happy to say, I’ve almost managed not to finish any of them – except Hoffmann’s ‘Blackbird House’ which reviewers describe as “not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection’ so I guess that one doesn’t count. And I plan to read it again anyway.
In this time pressed world, one would think that short story collections are poised for a revival; after all, what better antidote for the tired, overworked individual who remembers nostalgically the enjoyment they used to get from a good book – short stories are perfect!
As writer Jonathan Falla said “Good stories are not literary fast food, made on the cheap; they are intense with a flavour that expands to fill the mind.” The short story allows us in a short space of time to understand and consider momentous things, grand dilemmas. Short stories pull us into their world and shake us up.
Do you read short stories? What’s your favourite collection?