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July 1, 2008

Celebrating the Short Story

I’m writing this now, lying on the carpet in front of my bookshelves. I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time, what exactly I wanted to write about, and I decided it would be best written with inspiration in sight, within reach. Where I’m lying now, I’ve got my books by authors J-L before me– I’m looking at Jhumpa Lahiri’s two books of short stories. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Up above are collections by Jack Hodgins, Sheila Heti. Books by authors S-Sh are to my right– J.D. Salinger, Carol Shields. The Ps above that– Grace Paley, Emily Perkins. Flannery O’Conner is tucked over in the corner beside a Norton Anthology that contains “The Dead”. I really couldn’t think of a better vantage point for such a celebration than this (except if I were standing up, Twilight of the Superheroes would be within my grasp).

I’ve been wanting to celebrate the short story since I attended a reading of Luminato’s Festival of the Short Story last month, since I read Rebecca Rosenblum’s blog post after the fact, since I found out about Joyland, a new online home for short fiction established by writer Emily Schultz. One of the first stories posted there being “Clear Skies” by Lynn Coady, who’d moderated the Luminato writing I was at, and whose comments regarding the form were properly celebratory– the risks short fiction allows writers and readers, how it expands the possibilities of what fiction can explore, how the short stories are not miniature novels or long poems, but something onto themselves. Worthy of a festival indeed.

But not always celebrated, no. I’ve written before about short fiction’s illusionary portability, and I think a lot of readers get tripped up on this. Expecting brevity to mean easy, but it usually doesn’t mean such a thing at all. If anything, short fiction can take as long to penetrate as a novel does, reading it again and again instead of just once straight through. Which is an investment that doesn’t always make sense in purely economic terms (time is money etc.)– so much time and focus on a couple of pages, you might as well read a novel.

Further it’s hard to read a short story collection. I’m not always convinced collections are the best homes for short stories anyway– they work so well in magazines, I think, and online certainly could be close to ideal. But unless the collection was always meant to be a collection, as opposed to a stack of stories stuck together with string, it can make for stilted reading. And the time thing matters– how do you fit a short story collection into a day? One story might be too short for the bus ride, another too long to get through before you turn out the light and go to sleep.

Addressing any of this is a bit ridiculous because “the short story” is about as various as “the novel” or even “art”. Jhumpa Lahiri is barely related to Sheila Heti, for example. A short story is any/everything. The only thing that is certain is that a short story is itself.

I was a very undiscerning reader when I was in high school. I read what was put before me without judgment, because it was a book and books were good. Because I was Canadian, Alice Munro came my way, and I read Margaret Atwood– I remember liking Wilderness Tips. I read short story collections the way I did novels, voraciously, uncritically. But I do remember being vaguely unsatisfied by them. That I’d approach them looking out for what novels do, and when the stories failed to do it too, I didn’t know what else to do with them.

Which is not to say that I passed them over, but I rarely sought them out. I wanted to read whole worlds and not their pieces, failing to understand the key is to unpack the pieces, pick them apart to find the worlds inside. Within every single atom, if you’re lucky, and you will be.

The first short story collection I truly loved was Various Miracles by Carol Shields. Containing the story “Scenes” which is one of my favourites, itself made up of scenes (of course): “There are people who think such scenes are ornaments suspended from lives that are otherwise busy and useful. Frances knows perfectly well that they are what a life is made of, one fitting against the next like English paving-stones.” And the stories in this collection set up the same way– not linked, but fitted against, which is different. There is a space between. Engaging the reader to discern the connections herself, but it’s there– that voice, those themes. Here are pieces that equal even more as a whole.

One of the challenges of the short story– the effort required to read one’s way inside it– is conversely one of the best things it offers. The opportunity to read it again and again, engaging, becoming intimate, discovering its detail, the secrets inside. To get this close to a novel takes time, and perhaps was never even its purpose. Whereas the purpose of a story is to be steeped in, perpetually uncorked. To lie down inside so to look at the sky.

Discovering Grace Paley was a revelation to me, making clear more than any other writer ever had, that a short story was a short story was a short story, and that was that. Paley’s stories wore their storyness on their story sleeves, and I’ve never read anything else quite like them. They’re tough too– once through is not sufficient, you’ve got to go it again and again. She puts up blocks, strange twists, you’re not there to get comfortable. On your toes, get there and stay there. Read about a lady in a tree.

I read My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead this winter, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, and decided thematic anthologies are where the story has never been more alive. To be steeped inside one story after another, storyness in general, all of them of superlative quality, and various, multitudinous as you like. There were even some I hated, and I liked the freedom to be able to do so. Any/everything, from all over the world. If you asked me, What is the short story, I’d hand you this book the size of a brick.

Short stories populate my library. As the sun has started to go down, I’ve turned the light on and I can see to the tops of the shelves. Laurie Colwin, Kate Atkinson, Timothy Findley, Kate Sutherland, Virginia Woolf. I received Forms of Devotion by Diane Schoemperlen for my birthday last week. I’m looking at The Journey Prize Stories 19 now, and the literary journals that help keep the short story in business. The space where Grace Paley used to be, because I’ve taken her down now. In preparation of celebrating stories in the way I know best– through reading them.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating the Short Story”

  1. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    “…not linked, but fitted against, which is different. There is a space between. Engaging the reader to discern the connections herself, but it’s there…”

    This is exactly how it is, you are so right. Thanks for this post! I think the stories thank you, too!

  2. Lauren says:

    I love your comment about Grace Paley, Kerry- I think you have summed up her power completely. She is expansive and anecdotal at the same time. What captivates me every time I read Paley is how the voice is unafraid to TELL rather than always show..if that makes sense.

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