Short Stories: Where to Start

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The short story is emblematic of modern literature. As a form it embraces uncertainty and indeterminacy – the best short stories are unsettled and unsettling. Emerging in tandem with the novel, the first short stories were essentially short novels: those of Dickens, Hardy, and even James, just see fewer things happen to fewer people. They’re wrapped up tightly, often with a sting in the tail which is just a little too neat. The modern short story – which starts with Chekhov in the 1880’s and continues to this day – is a very different creature. Often not very much happens, and when things do happen, the significance isn’t clear. It’s this that makes the short story a form so suited to the modern experience.

The length of the short story removes the need for an involved plot: most short stories focus on a single moment, exploring its meaning. This technique of the “epiphany” unites much of the tradition from Chekhov to Joyce to O’Connor (Flannery and Frank) to Carver. That epiphany is cryptic. But the short story isn't a puzzle to be solved. It’s a form full of possibility. What earlier authors saw as the weaknesses of the short story are its strengths: the ambiguity, the opacity, a necessarily short-lived art. The best short story writers embraced the form as a way of rendering the modern experience of uncertainty and fragmentation.

It’s also a form of writing which has proved peculiarly suited to new voices. To make an unforgivable generalisation, the most interesting short stories don’t come from Britain. They especially don’t come from England, notwithstanding the honourable exceptions of Woolf and Lawrence. This might be because the short story comes – or used to – with different cultural baggage from the novel, which is inextricably bound up with the nineteenth century and its values. The short story was also a good way for a writer to make money (alas, this is no longer the case), and it was easier for the unestablished writer to get a short story published in a magazine or anthology than to get a whole novel published. As such, it was more amenable to experimentation. And, of course, one of the many advantages of short stories is that they don’t take too long to read. So if you’re looking to explore the short story form, here are a few suggestions:

Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man is Hard to Find (1953)

Striking and disturbing, O’Connor’s short stories are violent both in content and technique. Although she hated the term, these are the best of “Southern Gothic”, a heightened view of the American South. Enigmatic, arresting, and even horribly funny.

Isaac Babel – Red Cavalry (1926)

Drawing from his experiences in the Russian-Polish War, these stories are alive with the shock of the new. Babel’s stories are experimental in language and tone; his writing flourished in the 1920’s but, with the condemnation of “formalism” under Stalin, he wrote little more. He was killed in 1939 in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.

Katherine Mansfield – The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922)

I’m particularly fond of Mansfield because these are the first short stories I ever read. Virginia Woolf admitted to envying her writing, and while wildly variable in quality, her best work is startlingly good. Mansfield’s triumph is in her indefinable tone; it’s impossible to figure out what this writer is thinking. Her best stories are perfect and troubling vignettes.

Anton Chekhov – About Love and Other Stories (New Collection)

Chekhov is the father of the modern short story. He is mostly known in Britain for his plays, but in Russia his reputation rests on his stories. The aesthetic of ambiguity, the arbitrary, which have so dominated the form, come from Chekhov. Often nothing will really happen in Chekhov’s stories: at the end, they’re both static and utterly transformed. Reading one is an experience that is at once illuminative and opaque.

Lydia Davis – Break it Down (1986)

Davis reacts strongly against the post-Chekhov consensus of how a short story should be. Her work is very brief, and formally experimental. Rather than the incident, or epiphany, around which the classic modernist short story pivots, in Davis' short stories, experience fractures: the modernist art form adapting to postmodernism.

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