This last week I started another set of short story appreciation classes. Again, one of the first questions that arises is, why don’t more of us read short stories?
Looking at how my reading habit developed provides me with the basis for a theory about that why question. Thinking about this takes me back to one of the first blog posts I wrote, back in 2012. Can I really have been posting for so long? Where does the time go?
Those thoughts seem relevant enough that I’ve decided to repost most of the original:
As I grew up the print I read got smaller, the illustrations disappeared and the books got thicker. I read one or two collections of ghost or horror stories as well, but mostly my friends and I bought, borrowed and swapped longer and longer narratives. We were aiming for novels. School too was pushing us that way. They asked us to write short stories so that we could demonstrate our understanding of punctuation and grammar, but for literature, we would study, The Novel.
Our first grown-up novels were like contraband, passed around secretly. Before long we were reading them openly. I might occasionally go back to a childhood favourite, but in secret. In public, I did not go near the children’s shelves again, and neither did my friends. By the time we left school I had a strong novel-reading habit.
I did read a few short stories as I came across them, mostly in magazines. I also remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and another collection by a modern writer. I remember because of my disappointment. I could see that the sentences were well written, and I knew that these were important writers, but surely these were not stories. Where were the plots?
No wonder I didn’t get them. I had approached those two collections exactly as I did a novel. I turned from one story to the next, often without pause, simply because the pages were numbered consecutively. It was a long time before I went back to them. It took a night class and a new approach to writing before I read them as I should have.
I wish I had learned earlier that I did not need a degree course to appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted story. We learned the skills in English Lit at school. I just hadn’t understood how to adapt them.
Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem. The great British short story writers of the 1920s and 30s knew this. H.E.Bates, in his book, The Modern Short Story, (second edition 1972) wrote that, after the first world war the new generation of writers, ‘needed and sought as a form something between lyric poetry and fictional prose.’ He credited Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard in, ‘assisting the English short story to a state of adult emancipation.’
His study may be forty years old, but I cannot disagree with his analysis. I only wish that more people would seek it out.
Analysis by other authors also available, but I’d still recommend this one as a good starting place.