Does anyone like short stories, I mean, really like them? I know that many of us (or at least me) say that we do, but then do we ever actually read them? I’m always going to, I really mean to; year after year one of my major resolutions has been to read just one itty, bitty story a week and every year, the result is the same — I read, say, three. Or in a good year, maybe four. I’ve tried everything, every rationalization, every form of persuasion to up my total — “oh, just read whatever The New Yorker is publishing this week, it’s an easy way to stay current with new talent;” “pick some critically acclaimed collection by a prestige writer; that way you can blather and impress your literary friends;” “go on, pull out a ‘Best of the Year’ collection cluttering the shelves, it’s a quick way to get a little dusting done,” “it’ll be easier to read stories around a theme — Christmas, ghosts, Halloween, family relationships, whatever;” or, at a really low point, “just read one of the damn things and then go bake some cookies ….” Well, anyway, I’m sure you get the idea. Despite all this clever self-psychology, with a very few exceptions (Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress; William Trevor’s After Rain) I always go for a novel rather than a short story or a story collection. I think at bottom the short story leaves me a little dissatisfied; just as I feel that I’m getting underway — poof! It’s gone. I also think the short story requires the ability to stop, savor, relish, luxuriate in what you’ve just read, all of which is antithetical to my habit of reading quickly to cover a lot of ground. Yet still I persist in my annual goal, because the short story is, as far more knowledgeable people than I have said, a great art form.
Well, my failure to appreciate the short story is about to change! The Guardian has just published the most wonderful list, “Bite Sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more.” It’s a great mixture of classic, contemporary, famous writers (Alice Munroe, William Trevor and so on) and writers who may very well be famous but who are unfamiliar to me (Ilse Aichinger; Jo Ann Beard; Gina Beeriault); some stories were originally published in English; some are translations; there are a few obvious selections (Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and some wonderful contemporary stuff (“We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma). The great feature of the list is that each entry has a wonderful little paragraph explaining why that particular story is on the list. It’s so exciting! I must read them all! Perhaps one a week for the next year?