Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Reading Short Stories for Beginners -- A Primer and List of Required Collections

by Sean Taylor

So, you're not really a short story reader. You've been reading your Summer novels for a while now, and you'd like to see why I'm so gung ho about short stories. That's cool. It's okay. I can help you with that.

Well, if you're a regular reader here on the blog, you'll know that I'm a huge fan of short stories and that they are, in fact, my favorite medium for writing and reading prose. I simply love the art required for short fiction.

How to read a short story collection

Step one -- open to the table of contents.
Step two -- read the list of titles.
Step three -- pick one that sounds interesting.

That's right. Totally ignore those 1s, 2s, and 3s in the "chapter" numbers. They don't matter anymore, not one bit.

That feeling you're getting giddy and euphoric on... that's called freedom. You're no longer bound to follow the order the sections appear between the covers. Read the end first. Read the beginning last. Read from the middle out. Jump around from story to story. Pop around like popcorn (the old Jiffy Pop stuff, not microwave). Read all the short ones first. Read all the long ones first. You do you. There are no rules.

Step four -- if you're not enjoying the stories you've read, close the book and pick up a different collection.

Whoa, now... Don't get crazy. Once you start reading you have to finish all the pages, right? Nope. That's the beauty of short stories.

Also, if you don't have time to read a novel per week or month or whatever timeframe you assign yourself, then just jump around with several collections of stories. You feel like you're cheating on your "main read" because there is no main read. Not this time.

See? That's true freedom, baby. Drink it deep. Breathe in it. Roll around and get it all over your jeans. It's okay.

Okay, so where do you start?

Well, here's my list of single-author short story collections to get you started. I mean, if you want to read, then you want to read the best. Right?

The Ways of White Folks is perhaps the finest volume of stories from the post-slavery United States. Each tale relates the culture shock when blacks and whites try to co-exist in a word that won't let them without shying away from the implications. But best of all, Hughes tells his stories with the ear of a poet, making each tale a feast for the ears and eyes.

This forgotten volume is the work of an older world, but the creepiness of these stories can't be denied. If you've ever wondered how horror without gore could still creep you the hell out, then you need to read this book. Modern horror writers would do well to rediscover this one and take it's lessons on the art of horror to heart.

Most readers will know Ed McBain from his Matthew Hope and 87th Precinct novels, but even so, it would do you well to look up this collection of early stories from the master of the police procedural. These are the stories that made McBain the writer he became.

Eudora Welty is another of the masters of Southern Fiction. The people she writes about are as real as anyone you've ever met south of the Mason Dixon Line (or above it, for that matter). Welty has a sense of storytelling that comes across like a folk historian.

This one is worth the price of the book for "Harrison Bergeron" alone, but don't be fooled -- Vonnegut's no one-trick pony. He's perhaps the master satirest of the 20th Century, and his characters will stick in your brain long after you put the book down. If you like your fiction with a touch of the absurd, Vonnegut's your writer, hands down.

While The Greast Gatsby may be considered by many as the quintessential Great American Novel, Fitzgerald is also a craftson of the highest caliber when it comes to short stories. Nobody captures the fun, craziness, and self-indulgence of the 1920s better. But unlike lots of period pieces, Fitsgerald's tales are stuck in the past. They still ring true for modern readers.

What can out-Lovecraft the great H.P. himself? Well, The King in Yellow can. Based on a unrevealed play of the same name that can cause madness when read or performed, the stories in this book will stick with you for a long, long time, particularly those from the opening pages. Chemicals that turn people to stone, ghastly stalkers, creepy painters -- it's all here.

Almost everybody knows "The Lottery," but few could name her other stories by name. And that's a shame. Jackson knows her craft, particularly as it relates to making a reader care about slightly odd and broken people who exist just off the edge or normal.

This is the first of Bradbury's collections in this list, and I'm not apologizing. This volume is a bit of a departure from the average short story collection because the stories weave in and out of the lives of a town experiencing the seasons. One of the first to combine the novel with the short story effectively, Dandelion Wine is a must read for any serious reader of short stories.

Pinning down just one volume from Flannery O'Connor is a difficult thing to do for a list. She has a knack for creating some of the most memorable characters in 20th Centry fiction, all pulled from the Southen Gothic way she saw the world and incorporated it into her fiction. Nobody else could have created such a "good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

No list of short story collections is complete without Hemingway. He's the guy who defined the concept of literary short. All the classic stuff you either love or hate about Hemingway is here -- the talking around things, the "what the hell is actually going on here," and the to-the-point prose that stickes to the who, what, where, how, and why that he masters during his time as a newspaper writer. There's a reason Hemingway is considered the master of the form.

Nobody, and I mean nobody tells a short story like Ray Bradbury. He's the pinnacle of the artform, and this is his finest work, particulary the title story about a time traveler who faked it to change the world for the better.

Few contemporary writers can sell short stories like Neil Gaiman. Including some essays, this isn't only a short story collection, but it does contain some of his best fantasy shorts that have redefined the genre and pulled it away from the Tolkienesque.

In my opinion, Stephen King is an okay novelist but a damn fine short stories writer. Where he misfires on his novel endings, he has the luxury of not having them in his short stories. In medias res is the norm here. These quick bites of horror and terror are King at his best. (After this one, then read Just After Sunset, his second best collection.)

One of the best sci-fi collections ever. Kilworth tinges his sci-fi with both horror (the titel story) and satire (as well as anything by Vonnegut). This is an often neglected or forgotten work well worth looking for.

Raymond Chandler may be a novelist of the finest quality, but if you haven't read his pulpy shorts, you're missing the full picture. This is adventure writing at its finest. Nobody turns murder and theft into art like Chander. Period.

If Raymond Chandler wrote about relationships falling apart instead of murder, he'd write this book. Take the terse, straightforward style of the pulps and add a few literary techniques like characterizaton and talking around things instead of about them, and you have this book, one of the finiest short story collections ever, and well worth your time.

Garcia Marquez is best known for being part of a litery style/genre called magical realism. Basically that means the mundanely normal and the weird and supernatural (but not too much) sit side by side. This is one of my favorite types of stories, and "Eva Is Inside Her Cat" and "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" (two of the best examples) are in this collection. Garcia Marquez is perhaps one of the biggest influences on my super hero fiction (and it's pretty evident in my story "The Other, As Just As Fair").

Your Turn

That's it for me. What are your favorite short story collections?