When was the last time you read a short story? Other than the odd story in a women’s magazine, perhaps, the chances are it might have been a while ago. Short stories haven’t really been in fashion in recent years. But thanks to the emergence of flash fiction (very brief stories of fewer than 1,000 words) and prevalence of erotic fiction – often published in short story form – as well as the accessibility of short fiction online, they are growing in popularity.
It’s easy to argue that short stories aren’t as good or enjoyable as novels because they’re not as immersive or that their characters or plots aren’t as well developed. But part of the enjoyment is found in the skill and the craft of a small, but perfectly formed tale and the ability to tell a story with brevity.
Ernest Hemingway famously wrote the original piece of flash fiction: the six word short story that read, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s the simplicity of Hemingway’s story and what isn’t said that has impact; it makes the story memorable and moving. Salley Vickers’s short stories in Aphrodite’s Hat are much longer but she writes the most fully formed characters simply by exploring a key moment in their lives or their relationship with another character.
Best of all, short stories are really, really convenient. We all know how frustrating it is to stop reading a great novel at a critical point because you’ve reached your station or bus stop. Short stories come in a range of lengths, anything from 140 characters (check out @VeryShortStory on Twitter) to longer stories that verge on novellas, with everything in between. So you’ll always find something that fits in with a busy day. Bite-sized entertainment, if you like. A friend of mine – a new mum – also swears by short stories to provide her with precious snatches of escapism whilst her daughter sleeps.
There’s something extremely satisfying about finishing a story, seeing it through to its conclusion whether you saw it coming from the start or there was a twist in the tale. And if you’re not really enjoying it, you don’t have to waste quite so much time as you do when you’re reading a novel that takes a while to get going. So you skip the odd story in an anthology? Maybe the next one will be more your thing.
Sarah Hall published her first collection, The Beautiful Indifference, last year and it is as intense and beautiful as her novels. A.L. Kennedy has published half a dozen collections, any one of which I’d recommend. And Scottish poet and writer, Jackie Kay, has also written three collections, including her most recent, Reality, Reality, which is rich with her wonderfully warm voice telling the diverse stories of her female characters.
Of course, if you like a bit more variety, there are some great anthologies about. Salt – the small indie publisher, which found success this year with Alison Moore’s Man Booker nominated The Lighthouse – has published its second annual anthology, The Best British Short Stories 2012. It includes 20 diverse stories from literary heavyweights like Jeanette Winterson and Stella Duffy, as well as writers you might not have come across yet, such as Emma Jane Unsworth and Stuart Evers. It’s a perfect place to start.
And for the freshest short stories and emerging talent, my advice is to subscribe to a literary magazine or two. Booktrust has an incredibly comprehensive list of titles that publish short stories, from the well-established Granta to ezines that publish short stories online, some of which you can read for free. My particular favourites are The Yellow Room, Shortfire Press and Inkspill.
Wherever you look for short stories, you’re bound to find something you enjoy. What have you got to lose?