Wednesday, May 27, 2009

bruising powers of brevity, or, why you should read short stories

One of the most frustrating things about working at a bookstore is when you are telling someone about a book you love, one of those that you adore either madly and immoderately or sensibly and intelligently, and they listen to you politely before saying:

"Well, that sounds interesting. But it's really not my kind of thing."

And you're a little bit crushed, convinced that if only they tasted it, they would fall for it too; but it's perfectly fine for them to decline. They know themselves better than I do. They've been reading for years, and by now they know the general flavor of what works. I should leave them alone.

But.

There is something that I wish I could insist on. Everyone should read short stories! Look! I'll read you one myself, if you just stand here long enough. So many people tell me that they don't read short stories. They don't like them. They only want to read novels, the kind you can press your face into for several hours and emerge, glutted on the visions of someone else's life. Short stories seem pretty, they say, but what's the point of them?

The point of them is their shortness. They work with compression and omission, by leaving things out and taking shortcuts to the inside of your head where, once they get there, they unfold themselves, like a giant piece of origami undone. They bruise you with their hard edges, explode, amuse, devastate, and baffle. You can do things in a short story that would be exhausting if sustained for a novel. There's more space on the inside than you would suspect, more room for guessing, a looseness left for the reader to explore.

(Mr. Steven Millhauser has something to say on the subject, an interesting--and maybe faintly grumpy?--essay in the NY Times.)

I think the trick is that you have to figure out what kind of short stories you want to read. I used to avoid them because I thought they were all brief bits of ordinary people doing ordinary things, and that bored me (schools should use more imagination when selecting short fiction). What was the point of reading about something that I could see better by walking outside?

And then I discovered genre stories (I say "genre" and I mean mystery, fantasy, science fiction, anything where the strange and not quite possible actually happens). Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Kelly Link and Italo Calvino... Steven Millhauser, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Etgar Keret, Jorge Luis Borges, Ray Bradbury, Raold Dahl (have you ever read his short stories? brilliant!), Ted Chiang, M. R. James, Kurt Vonnegut ("Harrison Bergeron" is the first short story that I couldn't stop thinking about for days and days after I read it), Avram Davidson... These stories smacked me in the head. They got up my nose and under my skin. They haunted, excited, and thrilled me; and I loved them.

And because I'm so in love with them, I want everyone else to love them to. Or, at least to give them the chance to introduce themselves.

Read short stories. Bruise your head.

5 comments:

damiengwalter said...

Hurrah for short stories! I love them more and more. They take work though, often more than a novel, which is why many people overlook them I think.

Megan Kurashige said...

Just out of curiosity, what are your favorite three shorts out of whichever ones you've read in the last month or so?

damiengwalter said...

The Fantasy Writers Asisstant by Jeffrey Ford, for its combination of pathos and whimsy. Husbandry by E J Fischer because I hate zombies but this made them work for me and maybe Exhalation by Ted Chiang, just because its Ted Chiang!

Megan Kurashige said...

Yes! Husbandry rocked my socks. I also hate zombies unless they are farcical (or in washing machines), but this one stuck metaphorical knives in my heart and head, so I was happy.

Also, "The Force Acting on the Displaced Body" by Christopher Rowe (makes me long--long!--to write about a version of the river Styx).

And, "Secret Lives" by Jeff Vandemeer, though I cheated and listened to that one rather than read it.

E. J. said...

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