Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Trouble with Short Stories

Sometimes, you read just the right thing at just the right time. But more on that in a minute. . . .

Speaking of reading, I am not doing very well with a lot of my reading challenges for the year (especially "reading books that are already on my shelf"). But I have been plugging away at the Short Story a Week Challenge. I’ve read fifty-eight short stories so far (which, yes, would equal more than one a week, if I spread them out). And I’ve learned something about myself.

I don’t like short stories.

I felt my unread backlog of New Yorkers stare accusingly at me every time I picked up The Cursed Child instead.

So far this year, I’ve read short stories from the New Yorker, from published collections, from literary magazines, from slightly-less-literary magazines, and from sci-fi magazines; I’ve read stories for children, stories for adults, and stories that ride that line between YA and fully grown up; I’ve read painfully realistic stories and confusingly absurd stories.

And while there were a handful I liked, or at least, appreciated, most of them left me cold. In fact, out of all them, the only two I had truly enjoyed were “The Jesters” by Joyce Carol Oates and a story called “Toad Words” by Ursula Vernon that I stumbled across on Tumblr.

I always feel a little sad when people tell me that they are “not into poetry.” Because that’s a little like saying, “I’m not into music” or “I’m not into food.” I suppose it’s possible. However, it seems more likely to me that they just haven’t found the right sound/flavor of poem yet.

But I was beginning to feel like I wasn’t “into short stories.” Like I was missing some essential part of the reading brain that allows you to enjoy short fiction.

In the midst of this, I found myself circling the “Quick Pick” section of my local library. (Not that I needed another book to read—I definitely did not.)

And I picked up a book with an introduction that said just what I needed to hear:
I recently spent a long weekend in Key West at a literary festival where the organizing theme was short stories. How delightful for me! There was much discussion on panels of the challenges that short stories present to their readers. The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into—novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain moral fortitude to properly digest. And yet it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space. In contemporary short fiction, sometimes it’s the language of the story that transmits the live-wire shock. Sometimes the structure of the story itself—the container—the way it unfolds—is the thing that startles or energizes or joyfully dislodges the reader. But: it does sometimes seem to me that for maybe the last quarter of the previous century, the subject matter of literary short fiction was somewhat sedate: marriage, affairs, the loss of love, personal tragedies, moments of self-realization. The weird and the gothic and the fanciful mostly existed in pockets of genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, children’s literature) as if literature were a series of walled gardens and not all the same forest (Kelly Link).

This was what was bothering me. Everything I had been reading, whether high or low-brow had seemed predictable. (“Gosh, I wonder if this bird—a symbol for your relationship—will die. Yes, yes, he will.” “Gee, I wonder if this child protagonist will learn a terrible truth about life—and handle it badly.” “Golly, I wonder if these stick-figure characters will act out the obvious moral of this story.”) And what’s worse, they largely lacked any delight for (this) reader. I don’t need my fiction to be “delightful.” But I need to find some sort of delight in it—whether of discovery or language or character. I need to be surprised.

The book I had picked up was The People in the Castle, a new compilation of Joan Aiken’s work. I picked it up because, seeing Aiken’s name, I was immediately flooded with memories of other collections (The Last Slice of Rainbow and A Harp of Fishbones) I’d read in high school. And while I didn’t necessarily remember (or even like) every single short story, I distinctly recalled their vibrant strangeness. (I believe there was one about a man or woman who had a sort of “face blindless” and then fell in love, but something happened to the person this character loved—I think maybe they got trapped in a tea kettle?—and without seeing their love interest for a while, this face-blind character couldn’t recognize them later. I don’t know if that’s exactly correct. But it has all the feel of an Aiken short story.)

I think of a novel as a house (I’m certain I’m stealing this metaphor from someone, is it Henry James?)—a full structure, carefully built, worthy of exploration. And I think of a poem as a window (looking in or looking out). A poem only gives you a glimpse, but sometimes the glimpse is more perfect, more satisfying than a tour through the mansion could be.

But then what is a short story? A room?

Maybe that’s the problem. So many of the short stories I’ve read lately have felt like hotel rooms: slightly different in their details but generic and unremarkable.

Aiken’s stories are like the front room of a questionable apothecary shop or a hidden room in the center of a manor house with a unexplained tree growing through the floor (the actual setting of “A Room Full of Leaves”). They aren’t all quite what I would call “literary.” And if you read enough in one sitting, you start to guess where some of her stories are going. But my word! did they delight me, did they surprise me, did they reawaken a pleasure I had forgotten I could receive from short fiction.

I know a work has really sunk into my bones when it makes me view the world a little differently for the rest of the week.

I’m curious to know: what was the last short story you read that gave you a sense of delight?

(Image from Small Beer Press.)

1 comment: