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The big appeal of short stories

Can you think of a blockbuster book of short stories? No, me neither. In this form of writing, there is no Dan Brown or JK Rowling, and just a very rare appearance on bestseller lists. Short stories have long been the poor cousins of long-form novels.

Given their length and the level of detail that allows, novels invite the reader to fully enter a story, spend weeks with well-developed characters, in a different world or circumstance.

In contrast, short stories are more likely to strike with a sudden force and leaving the reader with questions, and often a sense of wanting to know more.

Having read Robert Drewe’s The Bodysurfers – after mistakenly thinking it was a novel – I wonder why it took me so long to appreciate this form of writing, and why I tended to choose long-form over short.

Tied together by characters and locations, the stories in The Bodysurfers have an appeal quite different to that of long-form novels. There are fascinating, and tantalisingly brief, insights into character and motive, leaving the reader with an irresistible desire to learn more, despite a sense that all will not end well.

I read Drewe’s short stories while on the train, and completed a story on each commute. Each proved to be a perfect bite-sized way of devouring literature. By reading the stories in this fashion, I was able to concentrate on the story as a whole, without interruptions, in a way that would have been impossible in a longer-form book (at least for me, with sadly few opportunities to sit with a book all day long).

Writer Neil Gaiman said that short stories provided not just experience, but also, convenience:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

My introduction to short stories came years ago, when I studied Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts while at school. Carver wrote in a way that I had never experienced – his work was gritty, sparse, and disturbing, with his short, sharp sentences somehow as revealing as they were opaque.

More recently, Nam Le brought stories into the mainstream in 2009 when it won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award. The stories in The Boat spanned the globe, as Le conjures up the stories of a 14-year-old hitman in Colombia, an aging painter mourning the death of his younger lover and a refugee fleeing Vietnam in a boat.

Similarly, Interpreter of Maladies attracted mainstream attention when it won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories travel from India to New England and back again, exploring the experience of being a foreigner, and of interpreting a baffling new world.

And in the past week, it has been a short story that has set the internet alight, going viral and attracting praise and debate. It is a novelty for a short story to take the spotlight so decisively, as Cat Person has done. Perhaps, this is a sign of things to come, and of the short story taking centre stage.

In the meantime, now that I have been reacquainted with the pleasures of brevity, I plan to read the work of the high priestess of short stories, Alice Munro.

Can you recommend any short story collections you have enjoyed, or do you prefer to read long-form fiction?

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. I am a great fan of short stories. I like that they often leave you thinking. I am reading Dear Life by Alice Munro right now and am loving it. Don’t forget the wonderful stories of Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe and O’Henry and too many others to list. Young children always enjoy the Tashi stories too

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