Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
Mavis Gallant, 1996 (Preface to her Selected Stories, Bloomsbury 1997)
I love short stories. I read them. I buy them. And I really love what Mavis Gallant has to say about them too (so much so, that I’ve quoted her here before). Yes, stories can wait. But then I noticed just how much waiting some of the collections on my short story shelf (you have one too, right?) were doing. Waiting and waiting and waiting. I blame the intimidating heft of some of those collected/selected volumes. What a commitment to start ploughing through all of Cheever or Carver or Maxwell, or even dear Mavis herself.
A short story collection works best for me when I read a story a day until it’s done. There’s enough space left around each story (Read one. Shut the book.), but there’s also the sense of connection between the stories, the conversations they have amongst themselves, the echoes and reversals of image or subject or emotion. I always take a short story collection with me when we go on holiday because that’s the perfect time for this kind of one a day commitment. But in daily life — that’s harder.
It wasn’t until about 4pm on New Year’s Day that I decided to try reading a short story a day. I started with ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ simply because I remembered how very short it was. The ‘rules’ are simple. I choose a book & try to take a photo of it sometime during daylight. I read a story from it at some point during the day — usually either the first one, or one that I remember particularly enjoying, or the next one I haven’t read — and then I post a picture & sometimes a quote on Instagram before I go to bed. I’ve been alternating male & female authors and, for this month at least, I’m trying not to repeat an author. With a quick trip to the library, it’s been alarmingly simple to find enough short stories. (Which is not to even mention those freely available online.)
I don’t know how long I’ll go on for — but for the moment it’s so much fun. Skipping from author to author allows me to notice choices that I might not see as clearly if I was reading a collection of stories by one author. I’ve also noticed how very quickly some stories fade, just as other short stories truly live with you forever in a way that very few novels do (or at least, so I’ve found). I’ve read stories that have made me never, ever want to write again because they are just so perfect. But I’ve also read stories that make me think so what? in much the same way that my own abandoned attempts at writing short stories usually do.
Anyway, I thought that I’d bring you a few of my favourite here from time to time. The jewel-like, perfect ones, the ones that seem necessary and alive; those that have me rereading and rereading, poking about in their entrails to try and see how the mystery of them works. I’ll start next week with ‘Stand Your Skin’ from Colin Barrett’s amazing Young Skins.
In the meantime, send me your short story recommendations, or pop over to Instagram to see what I’ve been reading. I know Chekhov & Alice Munro have to make an appearance in the final week of January…who else? And if anyone else feels inclined to join in, even just for a week, you’d be very welcome.
PS Time! You might wonder where I’m finding the time to read the short stories. I’m carrying books to swimming lessons & football classes & reading in the small gaps when my fellow watcher doesn’t need anything from me. But mainly, I’m reading them when I cook the kids’ tea, in place of the, err, blogs that I used to read at that time of day (!!). I once read (on someone’s blog, naturally), that writing a blog doesn’t take long, it’s reading them that takes the time. I wouldn’t wholly agree, but I have to admit, there’s a certain truth there.