Short Story Collections?

I’ve come to notice that while there are many many more novels published compared to short story collections, the later that are published are usually high in quality. It seems that publishers have no problem filling up book shelves in bookstores with badly written novels next to excellently written ones, but for some reason, a short story collection has to be top notch. Or is this the publishers doing?

Novels or Short Stories

Publishers would rather publish novels than short story collections, yet short story collections by not well-known writers are published each year. This is because it’s easier for publishers or editors to scout literary journals and magazines for talented writers and then take a chance on them by publishing a collection of their short stories. This is nicely covered in Alan Rinzler’s blog.

I still sift carefully through a short story collection by a writer I’m not too familiar with before buying it. In the end though, I more often buy it than not. With a novel, this seldom happens. There’s a mental checklist the novel needs to rigorously pass before I buy it. I don’t feel the need to do this with a short story collection that grabs my attention… Dare I say it? It would seem that this is one of the rare moments where I trust a publisher.

My Favorites

I’d like to share my most recent favorite short story collections here. By most recent I mean in terms of when I’ve personally read them and not by publication date. By favorite I mean the collections that really stuck out.

I particularly enjoy reading short story collections when I like the writings of a writer I’m familiar with, but don’t necessarily feel like engaging in the depth and scope of a novel. I also enjoy them when I’m reading a new writer whose style of writing I like (I usually discover a short story of theirs in a literary journal or anthology, and then keep an eye out for a collection by the said).

The writers of the following eight titles have been a source of pleasure to read for their story-telling abilities and their mastery of the craft of this form. In no particular order (the last four I have reviewed previously on this blog, you can check the links):

1. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2. Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri

3. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

4. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

5. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

6. A Stranger in this World by Kevin Canty

7. The Maples Stories by John Updike

8. Friendly Fire by Alaa Al Aswany

That would be two Nigerian authors, a Japanese, a Bengali, three Americans and an Egyptian. I mention this because I love reading world literature and make it a habit to experience the many different and talented writers currently published today.

When do you pick up a short story collection? Can you recommend me any titles?

Samir

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40 Comments to “Short Story Collections?”

  1. I was just investigating a short story competition and I came upon a competition for Flash fiction. I had never heard of this. The Bideford competition asks for fewer than 250 words. That would be a very short story. I just had a go at writing one and it is less than an anecdote really. What do you know about this type of short short fiction? I have found ample examples but I am not sure who this is aimed at.

    • Flash fiction is just that – very very short stories. I find them quite hard to write and rarely enjoy reading them, except Rodger’s work on his blog (i.e. Rodger Jacobs whose link and comments are blow this one). If you navigate to his blog, you can look up some flash fiction, although his are still longer than 250 words… I think.

      But nevertheless, it’s great you made an attempt at the competition. :-D

      • Here are a couple of more representative pieces of flash fiction from a series I wrote in 2008 called ‘Writers at the Sea':

        EMILY ABOVE THE SEA

        In the sequence of sensations that pass through her sleeping mind every night, Emily Dickinson is standing on a wide cliff above a furious ocean. Angry waves crash upon the rocks at the base of the cliff and send fists of foamy gray water into the sky. Every so often a menacing rogue wave threatens to reach up and pull her into the sea.

        The bitter cold is gnawing into her bones, biting and crunching, because she is completely nude, shorn of her customary white dress. She is small, like a wren, and her hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and her eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.

        Emily looks hard into the watery abyss below and asks, “Is my verse … alive?”

        *****

        STEINBECK AT THE BAY

        He had more faith in biology than spirituality. Oblivion after the fact, he wrote his doctor shortly before his candle flickered and dimmed, an intuition “deep in his bones” that he, perhaps all living things, would not survive physical death.

        He noted once in the Saturday Review that a reader, incensed at something the author committed to print, ended an excoriating letter with the warning: “Beware. You will never get out of this world alive.”

        When his own final state arrived, December 20, 1968, from occlusion of the main coronary arteries, John Ernst Steinbeck’s physical remains were incinerated. The modest urn containing his ashes was interred at the family plot in Salinas Cemetery. He rests between the dark and brooding Santa Lucia mountain range and the Monterey Bay that he loved so much eight miles west. In the winter the high-gray flannel fog from the deep and mysterious bay closes off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from the rest of the world.

        • Thank you Rodger. I like your blog and these stories are amazing. I have tried to write 2 now but they are nothing like yours. You are able to express in these short words what would take me three or four times as long. I will go back to the drawing board as it were.

          • Thank you very kindly, Kerry. Here’s a primer for flash fiction which, incidentally, borrows from one of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules of writing but pertains most keenly to flash: Start as close to the ending as possible, because, in most cases, that is essentially what flash fiction is, the very ending of a story, leaving the reader (hopefully with enough clues from the writer, sparingly detailed) to fill in the unfurnished narrative, like bits of an overheard conversation long in progress before you dropped in:

            “And then I told Jake, ‘If you do that, I swear, may God strike you dead!’ And then what happened? He keeled over! Right there in front of me! Grabbed his chest, then held on to the fireplace mantle for, like, two seconds, knocking down all of the Christmas cards, and fell like a wet towel. The paramedics said it was probably a heart attack. I mean, shit happens, you know? You gonna have another martini?”

          • Thanks for the tip. I think that is where I am going wrong. I am starting way to early and trying to get too much in. It is then far to thin.

      • Thank you Samir for the reply and the reference.

  2. Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories but only the edition where the stories have been arranged in chronological sequence:

    http://www.amazon.com/Nick-Adams-Stories-Ernest-Hemingway/dp/0684169401/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336530395&sr=1-1

    From the Preface: Arranged in chronological sequence, the events of Nick’s life make up a meaningful narrative in which a memorable character grows from child to adolescent to soldier, veteran, writer, and parent — a sequence closely paralleling the events of Hemingway’s own life. In this arrangement Nick Adams, who for a long time was not widely recognized as a consistent character at all, emerges clearly as the first in a long line of Hemingway’s fictional selves. Later versions, from Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry to Richard Cantwell and Thomas Hudson, were all to have behind them part of Nick’s history and, correspondingly, part of Hemingway’s.

    As is true for many writers of fiction, the relationship between Hemingway’s work and the events of his own life is an immediate and intricate one. In some stories he appears to report details of actual experience as faithfully as he might have entered them in a diary. In others the play of his imagination has transformed experience into a new and different reality. Exploring the connections between actuality and fiction in Hemingway can be an absorbing activity, and readers who wish to pursue it are referred to the biographical studies listed at the end of this preface. But Hemingway naturally intended his stories to be understood and enjoyed without regard for such considerations — as they have been for a long time.

    • Wonderful recommendation Rodger, right up my alley. It’s quite a feat how Hemingway weaves fiction and reality together and this is the second most impressive feature of his writing for me. The first being minimalism and specifically its use in dialogue, which is signature Hemingway and a joy to read.

      I actually acquired the entire published works of Hemingway and I’m going through them gradually as I have to read many other books and collections as well. I’ll check the table of contents on the link above to make sure I read the Adams’ stories in the appropriate chronological order.

      Now I’m all worked up and curious. I’ll get right to it once I finish the books I’m reading at the moment.

      • Samir, have you read the Hemingway World War I essay/short fiction work “A Natural History of the Dead”? It’s in most short story collections (the Finca Vigia, et al). That one short work makes up for every bad piece of prose the man ever committed to paper. Just astonishing, the “true gen”, as he would say.

  3. Good points and questions in the post and comments here, Samir. I love short stories as much as I love novels. The last short story collection I read (outside of the work of the writer I live with, whose stories I edit) is “The Night In Question” by Tobias Wolff.

    One commenter above raised the question of continuity in a collection. With “The Night In Question,” all fifteen stories have at their core a moral dilemma. You might think all fiction concerns moral dilemma, but Tobias Wolff’s short story craftsmanship injects questions into me like nobody’s business.

    I discovered and read “The Night In Question” in 2006. The characters and events in this collection still come back to me now and then.

  4. I tend to avoid short story collections when selecting a book. And I know that short stories tend to be better written than many novels. I think my reasoning is that when I sit down to read I want continuity, and short stories break up that flow of commitment I have made. I want to be involved in a long term relationship and shy away from these “quickie” flings with characters. Does that make sense? But I do respect and enjoy short stories. I spend an entire quarter teaching them to my students. They are quite valuable.

    • Fascinating. Claire’s link below covered that aspect in her post which I disagreed with, thinking that there would be very few people focused on the continuity aspect! Thanks for making me see otherwise. I suppose I have no problem with this especially since I developed the habit of reading many books simultaneously, including short stories, personal essays and various novels. But I do remember a time when I’d only read one novel and not enjoy anything else unless I completed it first.

      I suppose my reading habits changed and the amount of texts in various forms also increased over the years as I became more involved in the fields of English Language and literature. Nevertheless, I’m glad you like you respect and teach the short story because like Naomi, I also think its an art. :-)

      • I am always somewhat astounded when people say they are reading more than one book at a time. I have difficulty doing so–I really like to focus on one literary experience at a time.

  5. This is my favorite collection of short stories: “We Can’t Go Home Again” by Max Dubinsky. He uses minimalism with brilliance, creating characters that are raw, broken and beautiful. http://www.amazon.com/We-Cant-Go-Home-Again/dp/1470087715/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1322550111&sr=1-1

  6. Thanks for the recommendations. I don’t read many short story books. I used to but there seems to be a lack of them for adults. Well maybe not judging by those mentioned here, I just haven’t come across them. I loved Aesop’s fables and Dhal’s short story books.

  7. Two recent favorites are Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, and Steve Almond’s God Bless America. (The title, I think, is meant to be ironic, as the following clip might suggest…)

  8. Thank you for the recommendations! My favorite short story anthology has to be “Collected Stories” by Roald Dahl. Dahl’s mixture of the macabre with the humorous, the blatant and the unseen, is impeccable. Read “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Skin” from the collection if you get a chance!

  9. I’ve always assumed it’s because short stories, like poetry, are more of a niche market. When people think of books that are read for pleasure, they think of popular novels. Lots of people who aren’t “readers” will still read accessible novels once in a while, but not short stories or poetry. This means that the people publishers need to attract with short stories are more discerning readers, and thus they need to be of a higher calibre to be successful.

    Thanks for the list of recommendations!

    • Nicola, an astute observation. My only qualm is, shouldn’t publisher’s then promote these good books to enhance the readership rather than the other ay around? After all, media & marketing and strong forces that can direct demand as much as they can promote supply.

      Thanks for the excellent comment :-)

      • It would certainly be nice if publishers promoted the books they’re publishing more, but I suppose at the same time if you pour a lot of money into promoting something popular you’re going to get that money back in sales, but if you spend it on promoting a short story collection you’re still not going to get as many people interested as with a novel.

  10. I love short story collections and it inspired one of my very first and most popular blog posts ‘Why People Don’t Read Short Stories’. Like you I travel through stories, my collection traverses many countries and writers and is also a wonderful way to be introduced to new writers and writing. http://wp.me/p1nUrn-1j

    Granta Magazine is also excellent for this, choosing short stories/essays/extracts from a wide range of contributors, that we either don’t see or can’t find in bookstores.

    • I read your post Claire, very informative (thanks for the link). It really is lovely being able to read new authors and different nationalities through this format.

      I’ve been subscribed to Granta magazine for 6 years now… it is a marvelous publication.

  11. I think it is easier to write a great novel than a great short story. It is truly an art. I will enjoy checking out your recommendations.

    • Sometimes I’m inclined to agree. Even though a novel is huge in scope and work relative to a short story, it does seem easier – there’s more room to play around. A short story is constricted and focuses on a few elements of story telling that are compacted together and driven by the character. Yes, it’s definitely an art!

  12. thanks for the recommendations! :)

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