Top Ten Tuesday: 6 Books that Changed My Mind About Short Stories

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Top Ten Tuesday is brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week’s topic was to find 10 books that you read recently that were outside your comfort zone. I read pretty much everything, and there’s not a lot that I’m uncomfortable with, but last year’s challenge gave me the opportunity to read a lot of short story collections, which are not typically my first choice.

When you take writing classes at college, you read a lot of good stories and you write a lot of bad ones. The form is an interesting one, an old one. It always made me feel that maybe I didn’t have enough to say–or that I didn’t have anything to say that was at once shocking and everyday, new and simultaneously true to the oldest parts of human nature. I didn’t mind that most short stories had bleak endings. But I did mind that they had bleak middles and bleak beginnings for the most part. I felt that many of the most famous stories left me feeling nothing. There were standout stories of course, there always are, but they all sort of blended together in a sad way and left me thinking maybe I just don’t like short stories, maybe they’re not for me.

But I couldn’t allow myself to feel that way forever. I couldn’t write what I didn’t read. And I wanted to write short stories, at least give it another go. People always recommend certain collections, or sometimes you just find them, so I figured I’d give it a try and read some (hopefully) amazing books.

What I found sort of reassured me in a way. Short stories weren’t awful things to be avoided on the same level as dentist chairs and oil changes (does anyone else hate having to go do that? ugh). Instead short stories could be…magical. I think the magic, the fantasy is what does it for me. The endings might still be bleak but the stories make you feel things–hope, fear, sadness, triumph, anger. They transport you.

I also found that collections by a single author were preferable to anthologies. I think this is because I enjoy being immersed in an author’s style and that’s hard to achieve in ten or twenty pages before moving on to the next author with a completely different style. But a whole collection is more like a family album than a snapshot, and it’s easier to get your bearings and focus on the individual story. You start to see family resemblances.

The ones without fantasy or fantastical elements I have to say I respected and appreciated more than loved. Some of the stories were wonderful, but some felt more crushingly bleak. On the whole I tend to favor the absurd and the fantastical. There are writers with an immense gift for describing human nature, but that is rarely a rosy subject.  In the past year, I’ve learned more about what a short story has to teach and offer me, and I think that if you have been as resistant to the format as I have, you should read a couple of these collections before you give it up entirely. You may even change your mind.

  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  • Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
  • Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
  • Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

Have a favorite short story? Let me know in the comments.

Women Writers Reading Challenge #61: Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

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Some books have a reputation that precedes them. People talk about them with reverence as if they are a gift given down from the writing gods. I’m usually a bit cautious about these books because there are quite a number of brilliant writers that I’m not all that enthusiastic about. Hemingway comes immediately  to mind. In college, I kept an ongoing list to which I would add books or films that professors mentioned that sounded interesting or particularly important. I’ve read and I’ve scratched off some of those books, but this one has been on it for a while. When it came up on several must-read lists, I knew I could ignore it no longer.

And it turns out, in a bizarre twist, that this book is everything it’s cracked up to be. Moore writes about her characters with sympathy, but she doesn’t let them get away with very much. If they’re capable, they have to face reality. But though it’s often a harsh, disappointing reality, Moore writes with humor and enough compassion for humanity that the stories don’t feel bitter or cynical. It seems that if she could, she would really like to help her characters even if the biggest take away from the book is the only people who can help us are ourselves, and often times we’re unable to do just that. This is a monumental book by a great writer, and if you’re interested in short stories at all, your education will not be complete until you read this book.