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Issue 13: Vhcle Books: Short Stories
 
 
 
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This doesn’t, however, answer our question – after all, plenty of terrible novels are published and eagerly bought. So is the problem with us? After all, when was the last time you read a short story?

In the early 21st century the short story is not dead, but it lives a secretive life. It’s hidden away in the Books sections of magazines and newspapers, only occasionally surfacing in a full collection. Short stories act now as a calling card, like the flimsy shampoo samples found pasted on the glossy pages of magazines. “Look,” they cry, “If you like this, you’ll love my new novel!”
 
The form deserves better than this, to be a wingman for the real moneymakers. But until we value short stories enough to pay for them – whether in collections or as individual downloads – that will be their lot.
 
Maybe this comes down to book-lovers being an ornery lot, with short stories becoming collateral damage in the war against the attention-deficit generation. And it’s hard to deny that there’s something almost pugilistically satisfying about finishing all 550 pages of Crime and Punishment, a feeling of achievement. Yet few readers are still holding out against Kindles on sentimental, nostalgic grounds, and it would be a shame if it was simply stubbornness that took us away from the delights that a short story can provide.
 
Reading a short story brings a different enjoyment than a novel. In a short story you can hold the entire structure of the story in your hand, and appreciate the craft that’s gone into it sentence by sentence without exhausting yourself. Then there’s the privately momentous point when you spot the story’s title glinting from the page; in the enclosed space it’s like finding a tiny piece of treasure.
 
There are still short story ‘specialists’ writing today: the likes of Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, and more recently Wells Tower all write moving, funny, complete short stories that don’t feel constrained by their shorter word counts. So next time you find yourself at a loss for what to read next, try some short stories, and remember: it’s not how many words you use; it’s what you do with them that counts.
 
 
 
Read this article in Issue 13

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Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.
Read other articles by Jamie Thunder
 
 
In the sweltering heat that accompanies the British summer it’s reached over 30C at times! – I’ve found myself reading a lot of short stories.
 
This could be because the drowsiness induced by the sun lends itself to shorter stories that require less attention. Or because I’d just finished several longer novels and needed something more immediate to relieve my reading fatigue.
 
But either way, it got me wondering: why don’t we read more short stories?
 
In a world we’re constantly told is geared towards instant gratification, it’s surprising that it’s still novels, rather than novellas, short stories, or flash fiction that dominate our bookshops and reading habits. The answer to this conundrum certainly has nothing to do with writers’ willingness to write short stories – a 500-page breezeblock might be a more obvious outcome of months of hard graft, but the short and shorter story still is held in the highest esteem.
 
Last year, Ian McEwan – whose first book, First Love, Last Rites was a collection of short stories – wrote in The New Yorker:

“I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant.”

Indeed, look through the best writers of the last century and you’ll find few who didn’t begin with or ultimately prefer shorter stories: Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, John Updike to name but three. And even those who don’t often recognise that the form is more demanding than the novel.

Not, of course, that only short stories can be great. But there is something about the short form that lends itself to at least the possibility, the smallest glimpse of perfection. Nobody could sustain perfection over 400 pages, no matter how wide their range and clear their voice. But for 10, 50, or 150 pages? Perhaps.

The best short stories I’ve read recently – particularly those in Lorrie Moore’s
Birds of America – create as believable a world as the most expansive novel, and shorn of the excess material of an 80,000-word title they’re more satisfying, tauter.

Yet this only applies when done excellently. McEwan also writes of short stories:

“We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist. The smoke and mirrors, rabbits and hats are more self-consciously applied than in the full-length novel.”
 
He doesn’t mean it as a criticism – but I do. Too many short stories, in the rush to reach the end, fall for a jarring gear change that yanks the reader uncomfortably. Often means a character we don’t fully empathise with yet dying suddenly, or a shift in perspective that, rather than achieving the intended effect of forcing the reader to re-evaluate their assumptions developed over the previous 30 pages, makes them feel taken for a mug. Or else they are too well-wrapped, too self-consciously self-contained, a cloying cupcake in a bow-tied box.
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2013

Short Stories

 
 
 
 
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By
Jamie Thunder
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Vhcle Books, Issue 13
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