If Novels Seem Too Daunting, Try Short Stories
Novels tend to be the brunt of anyone’s to-be-read pile, but sometimes the seven hundred page hardback tomes or the lyrical navel-gazing makes for a really unsatisfactory story. Literary fiction novels often meander and play with tangential characters and themes. The author takes his or her time and makes a meal of the writing. It is epidemic that many readers feel ashamed if they didn’t love this treatise on agrarians who fear change or a city dweller who fears change. There’s only one cure for this common paper weight, and that is the short story.
Short stories offer a diverse array of authors, topics, genres and lengths. The plots are wrapped up within a few pages and are easily reread for future pleasure. The problem, of course, is finding them. Most commonly, contemporary short stories can be found in the large selection of literary magazines that exist on newsstands or on the internet and spread far and wide. There are yearly anthologies as well, but that may not be enough to satiate any voracious reader for long. So, what to do?
The short stories of the 20th and early 21st centuries are easily accessible for today’s readers. There are many publications and prolific authors whose work has been widely collected. Some of these collections may include an author who dabbled in the form before, during or after the publications of their famous novels. There are so many great writers to choose from, but here are a few authors that are a good start as they are masters of the craft and are well worth your time.
Shirley Jackson, who grew to prominence in the mid-20th century, often focused her short stories on horror and mystery. She is able to draw the reader in with a false sense that the narrative is innocent. Then, just as the reader gets comfortable, she introduces the cold menace of her story and that it was there all along. She is considered one of the best in the horror genre and if a reader is looking for something in that vein, they cannot go wrong with any of her collections. Especially if that collection includes her most famous work, “The Lottery.”
Flannery O’Connor is another author of the mid-20th century that many may have had in the school textbooks of their past. Her work is steeped in the culture and the grotesque of the Southern Gothic style. She writes morality tales with violent ends and tragic circumstances for the characters within. These characters often feel they are living moral lives, but have a gaping flaw they cannot see. O’Connor’s life was tragically short, but her stories are collected in two robust editions, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. The namesake stories of each book are likely the most famous and which a reader has already read, but they demand repeated readings as they are that good.
Ray Bradbury is like the two authors mentioned above. He is another prolific mid-20th century writer. His stories range from horror to fantasy to sci-fi. He often writes of how to break free of the worst implementations of machinery in a rapidly changing world of technology. His prescient prose often predicted just how television, the internet and nuclear proliferation could change the lives of all Earthlings. There are more of his short story collections than can be listed here, but a very good place to start is “The Martian Chronicles” where humans finally leave Earth behind to face the same petty differences and issues on Mars.
Raymond Carver is a prolific writer of the later half of the 20th century. The stories of his career are different from the others on this list as he often deals with working class people and issues. His stories are filled with characters desperate for that one strand of human connection in their lives, the one thing that can tether them to a less lonely existence. As an alcoholic himself, he often writes characters that drink, and drink heavily. This boozy state is how those characters often come to these emotional catharsis moments as they are unable to open up otherwise because of the societal inhibitions of their upbringing and class. His works are spread through many editions and collections, but a reader should look to any collection of his that has the stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “Cathedral” as collections well worth their time.
Jhumpa Lahiri is now well known for her sweeping novels, but she cut her teeth in short stories at the turn of the 21st century. The characters in her stories are often immigrants from her parents’ native India. These stories often convey a certain type of loneliness only experienced by a people culture shocked by immigration to somewhere drastically different from where they were. She has an excellent talent for writing about people cooking native foods and an illuminating take on community and how the second generation, born in the foreign land, is less likely to embrace their heritage in the new world. Both of her collections, the Pulitzer Prize winning, Interpreter of Maladies, and her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth, are easily available and a joy to dive into.
These are just a few of the many great short story writers out there and ones to get a reader started on the journey to discovering older or more contemporary works. The joys of reading and rereading a short story are vast. It is a large world with an incredible diversity of theme and focus. Reading short stories is a great way to expand one’s cultural and human understanding.