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.

Opting for an anthology.

I’d been thinking about prose poetry for some time before I bought The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, back in March. What I mean is, this wasn’t one of those whim-purchases that I generally specialize in. It was a gap in my library that had niggled at my consciousness for some time.

The choices I’d found by trawling the internet were not extensive, but all looked interesting. I whittled my list down by deciding I wasn’t looking for a historical perspective. I’d discovered plenty of well-written articles and essays about that on-line, and then there was a call for submissions for an anthology by The Valley Press. It had a 2018 deadline, but I followed the links and found that the anthology had been published in 2019.

The blurb for it said, Prose poetry is at the cutting edge of contemporary writing, freeing words from the bounds of traditional poetic grammar and bringing the magic of verse to flash fiction.’ That sounded like the writing I was looking for.

Of course, it’s easy to make promises, and I wasn’t so sure about the claim that this volume was ‘ambitious‘ and ‘ground-breaking‘. It felt like a heavy sales pitch, for an anthology promoting brevity.

Maybe prose-poetry needs a harder sell. It is, after all, a hybrid form.

When I mention prose-poetry in classes, many readers haven’t heard of it. Often, those who have aren’t sure what it is. Few have bought any.

If asked, my advice to readers who are looking for adventure, is to try an anthology. That way, we meet lots of different authors, and there are likely to be at least one or two pieces of writing that we will be glad to have read. Single author collections are fine if you’re already familiar with their form, and style, but risky if you’re new to them. Most of my risks are cheap, found in the second hand market.

I thought about that, back in March, when I was dithering over buying this anthology. Do I support writers, as consistently as I do charity shops?

No.

Lately, my buying habit has been so focused on catching up with reading I’ve missed, that I’ve not thought about what’s new. Most of my books are ten years old, or more, and that age-gap is likely to increase as my shelves continue to overflow.

I don’t want my reading to keep up with my book buying. I like slipping across decades and centuries, styles, forms and genres. My bookshelves are also an anthology. They hold enough of a variety that I can dip in at random, choose by purpose, or turn to another title if a first choice doesn’t supply what I’m looking for.

Why else would I want to keep so many books?

Who Reads Short Stories?

I do.  I have a fairly good collection of them now, but I think I must be in the minority, if the state of our local library and bookshop shelves are anything to go by.  To find any short story collections or anthologies in either can take a lot of searching.  Asking for a specific title or author is a matter of luck, or ordering in.

Whatever might be said about the role of the publishing industry in supporting, or not supporting, short fiction, the hard truth is that few people choose to read it.  Most British fiction readers prefer the novel, and the public book-shelves reflect this.  I say this because I have talked to a lot of readers over the last ten years, both as a tutor of creative reading groups, and creative writing groups, and because I know that what my students have told me mirrors my own experience.

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 remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and a 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, (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 could see it.