Do you read Short Stories?

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: 

EH Shepard illustration for Winnie The Pooh, by AA Milne

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Footnote:

Analysis by other authors also available, but I’d still recommend this one as a good starting place.

82 thoughts on “Do you read Short Stories?

  1. Though I’ve always read short stories to some extent, in the last several years I’ve been reading more anthologies. More established authors seem to be releasing both single, ebook, shorts and single author shorts collections. And I’ve found multi-author anthologies to be great ways to check out new authors without starting an entire novel (or, more commonly, series). In some cases, I’ve found established authors whose shorts & novellas I’ve enjoyed, but whose novels were (IMO) terrible.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Yes, I agree, Brent, starting with anthologies is a great way to discover new writers. Like you, I’ve also found that some novelists don’t seem to manage the short form, and that some skilled short story writers don’t manage novels so well.

      Liked by 2 people

    • How lovely to meet a fellow short story tutor. I love leading reading and writing groups in the short form. I like your list, especially as there are a few on there that I haven’t read yet. I love getting recommendations!

      Like

  2. I used to read short stories and love them Cath but haven’t done so for decades it feels! Ali Smith’s short stories in particular were favourite’s. Also I do think that sometimes I was reading them wrong and so your advice of reading them like a poem hits home. Thank you! Blessings always, Deborah.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Coincidentally I’ve scheduled a post about reading short story collections for Wednesday, and intend getting back to regularly reading them, starting in December, under the blanket title of Friends of the Library of Brief Narratives (a long title, admittedly).

    I’ve got a variety of authors lined up — M R James, Edith Nesbit, Katherine Mansfield, Joanne Harris, Primo Levi, and Carson McCullers for example — but I’ve yet to decide how to tackle posts, whether by highlighting particular tales or discussing collections as a whole; it’ll depend on each collection, I suppose. Anyway, the Bates looks like a good intro.

    Liked by 6 people

    • I like the sound of your list, Chris, and your list looks interestingly varied. I shall look forward to your reviews, either on an individual or collective basis.

      As for the title, I like it. I’m a fan of long titles, they seem like an extra gift from the author.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. “Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem” That seems like good advice. But then so much poetry is dreck.
    But the approach …Yes.

    Probably because I was not in a “top” stream at grammar school we were assigned an anthology of short stories for “O’ level. And some good ones too – Lawrence, Forster, Greene. Mostly it led me to want to read their actual novels. And so I did. With one exception: “Saki”. “Sredni Vashtar” was just a perfect “poem”. And led to more of his short stories without any desire to be immersed in a “Saki” novel. Alice Munro is another brilliant short story writer. that worked for me. Raymond Carver too. And then William Trevor – who also wrote wonderful full lengthers. But mostly I am one of those readers who does not turn naturally to short stories.

    For me, I think it’s the wish to be immersed, to get lost in a book.

    Liked by 7 people

    • I love Saki too, and have never read his novels, possibly because I read somewhere that they didn’t match his short stories. I really should check that out for myself!

      Yes, novels are good for getting lost in over extended periods. I still like being able to do that. It really is, and I think should be, a completely different approach to reading short stories. I hope you’ve got a good novel in progress at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I do love short stories, and read them quite often, but you’re completely right, Cath, that they need a different approach than novels. My take on shorts is that they pose a challenge for the reader – they are like the start of a conversation, an opening salvo, a conundrum left for the reader to answer. And because they require a response, they are a shared experience, and they work in a dialogue, many readers used to the novels’ structure treat short stories with distrust.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. You’ve got me thinking, Cath. Why haven’t I read a short story collection for so long? Probably because I’ve accumulated such a huge pile of TBR novels. I’ve read more poetry in the last year, too. I’m sure I’ve said this many times: so much to read, so little time…

    Liked by 5 people

  7. This post has come at just the right time Cath, I’ve never really read short stories because as you say ‘where’s the plot’! But reading reviews of short stories and now the novella’s in November posts have made me start looking at my reading differently and you’re right I do have to come at them from a different angle. I’ve been tempted to take KM’s stories off my classics list because I don’t know what to do with them but I’ll get hold of a copy of the Bates and start afresh. Thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. I have never really read short stories, but I have learned that short stories are my preferred way to write. In turn that has made me far more interested in picking up short story collections as I have a greater appreciation for the author ✍️

    Liked by 5 people

  9. I enjoy reading short stories and I agree with you that we need to approach short stories differently. If the idea/core/soul is rich, every type of story becomes interesting. Also, one needs to be patient, have a sense of humour and know brevity to understand short stories. Fantastic qualities to acquire! Wow, Cath, I too will read more short stories from now. 😀
    Thank you!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, I absolutely agree. I am on my 15th short story, just started writing them seriously from August this year. I want to write 50 of them within a year, am happy that people are reading and appreciating it online, but after a year if I want to publish them, I am not sure which publishing house would be interested. For now I am only concentrating on writing. Let’s hope for the best.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. I read anthologies and story collections fairly often, as well as the occasional standalone short story that finds its way onto my reader. Oddly enough, even though I’ve had a New Yorker subscription for years, and the reason I got the New Yorker subscription in the first place was to read the weekly fiction in the hopes of one day placing a story with them, I almost never read the short story in it anymore as they tend not to be the style of fiction I like. (Needless to say, I never did place a story with them.)

    Liked by 5 people

    • I do love an anthology. In the best of them, you can never tell what’s going to be over the next page.

      So, presumably the style of story in the New Yorker has shifted in the time since you began your subscription…

      Like

  11. Where are the plots? I had been watching a few talks by Stephen King recently, and in one he is asked about plot development and he replied, “I think plot is the last resort of bad writers, as a rule”. I think it explains our different needs and expectations from books as readers. A beginning, middle and end vs. immersion/escapism, perhaps.

    There are probably fewer authors of short form literature than novels, and this may be why we don’t read more. It becomes a cycle: we’re more used to what’s widely available, and what’s available is determined by what people are seen to read.

    I’m interested how I’d approach shorts as I would poetry. I have a lot of difficulty with poetry, it can be obscure and I’m told it needn’t make sense but it’s appeal lies in the soundplay of words. I don’t know how it applies to short stories which are quite concise, dealing in a single idea; which is different to a novel which is free to be more complex and convoluted.

    How would we approach poetry as we would a short story? I guess that’s what I’m asking. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Ian, wow, you ask a big question. I think reading poetry and short stories is about finding the right ones to start with. Too often, people have bad experiences with both.

      I’ve found some short stories and poems that are so complex they’ve inspired investigations that have extended to novel length essays and theories, and some novels that don’t offer complexity or convolutions.

      Where do you start? I started by reading lots, and looking for some I liked, then trying to figure out why I liked them. I also read the introductions to some good anthologies, which often explain why the stories or poems were chosen.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I too struggle with (some) poetry and yet I love the poetic compression to be found in some short stories. I think they are a perfect place to reveal something about human nature, some truth that is glimpsed and felt rather than ‘explained’. But there are many kinds of short stories!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Being an ardent fan and writer of short stories myself, I could not agree with you more Cath. You have really captured a big part of what Short Stories are and how they should be approached and read. I find it very challenging and interesting to write a short story. I can, maybe take the short path to writing success by penning a novel, but I don’t want to do it. I want to leave my mark through short stories, and want to help others develop the habit of reading them.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. I actually read stories quite often and I also like to write them! I’m new to WordPress and was wondering if you guys could check out my page and give it a follow, like or even just some feedback! caleecreates.wordpress.com Have a great day 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  14. An interesting and enjoyable piece. I hadn’t previously thought much about the process by which we, as readers, often tend to leave short stories behind as we get older. As a person who sometimes has a short attention span, I thought that I would use the short story format to practise and improve my writing skills in preparation for the novel I longed to write, but I have grown a deeper appreciation of this writing form and think it will always be a part of my writing. I shall look for a copy of Bates’ book, I am sure it will prove interesting. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I love short stories, and the collections I’ve edited and published with authors in my area have been well received in our community. Working on our new collection during the covid-19 lockdown was rewarding, and people were eager for the reading material when it was released in September. I think the shorter form is gaining popularity again.
    Thanks for this wonderful post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sheri. I’ve seen your Covid Collection and it does look like a very readable project. I hope you’re right about shorter forms of writing. It’s good to hear that plenty of people are still buying them, as well as writing them.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Short stories seem to offer the potential for something magical to happen – in writing them as well as reading. I know I have a tendency when reading to want to go on to the next when it would be better to let the one I’ve just read sink in. It takes such time to write one and yet we rush through, always looking for ‘what’s next’. Lovely post, Cath.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Such a great point! Like poems, Short stories are so often vignettes, single moments of transformation with beginning and end removed from the context that would lead to a novel. Hmmm. Maybe 2021 needs to be my year of short story study…

    Liked by 1 person

  18. A thoughtful piece – thanks, Cath. Short stories are so often seen as of lesser worth than novels, but there are some short stories that have stuck in my head way after reading in a way a novel might not. I love them – read them, write them, enjoy them. Glad I’m not alone! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Cath. I’m new to your sphere and found you while looking for people who are involved with and writing short stories. This essay resonated and I’d like to be part of the discussion.

    I write to be read but am in that period of building up both my portfolio & skills. I’ve not published beyond sharing my works on my story blog. I’ve had published authors tell me my work is good enough to publish but, and here’s where I sought and found you, I sense there just is not a market for another short story author.
    The economics are simple; many more authors than readers willing to buy.

    Add to that the cost & headache of any flavor of publishing just leaves me exhausted by thinking about doing it.
    So, I suspect I’m one of those writers who makes the problem worse by giving free access to my collection, because I mostly want to be read.
    Knowing there are readers out there who I may get the attention of — makes me work hard to get things right. I try to scale my story size to attract readers and work hard to catch all the errors that creep into each story somewhere between my brain and keyboard.

    But your topic is perfect. Why aren’t there more readers of short stories? I think, in part the market is broken. We know that social media is shriveling our attention spans but as the reading public moves from making time to read a good novel to reading a social media feed, the short story got skipped by the attraction to a nearly endless flow of memes and meal photos.
    I’m terrible with poems but really like your thought of approaching a short story like a poem. I’m poetry impared, but see this idea as brilliant.
    Poems cleverly create a thoughtful image. I think my short stories fail if they don’t do at least that but they also must have a hook, start, middle, ending all with a shared memory of having gone through the journey. They must have a take away of some kind.
    Done correctly, they can do more than a poem in a very short time.

    I hope to learn more along this line from folks like you & your readers and if I’m really lucky, maybe some will sample my attempts to write like I think and help me sharpen my results.

    You can find my collections at:
    https://garyawilsonstories.wordpress.com/

    And here is one of my recent creations where I think I was close to getting everything in balance.
    https://garyawilsonstories.wordpress.com/teeter-totter-floor-boards/

    Thanks for posting such a useful discussion starter & idea.

    Liked by 2 people

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