The short story seems to be staging something of a recovery. Today, the winner of The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for 2013 is announced, the £30,000 is the most generous prize in the world for a single short story. In America the short story has always been revered with influential publications such as ‘The New Yorker’ and, more recently, ‘McSweeney’s’ championing the form. But there seems to be a growing interest in the form closer to home. Some of the most well-received books of the last few months have been collections of shorter fiction, from Deborah Levy’s ‘Black Vodka’ (published by the excellent And Other Stories) to Jon McGregor’s ‘This Isn’t The Sort of Things That Happens To Someone Like You’ (Bloomsbury), while the BBC International Story Award has also drawn attention to the short story.
If you’ve never listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, I’d encourage you to do so. Each month a writer chooses a story from the archives, reads it and then discusses the choice they made. This is the idea at the heart of another influential publication’s recent collection of stories, The Paris Review’s ‘Object Lessons’. A writer chooses a story and explains why they chose it. You then get to read the story. A collection which contains names such as Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis and Denis Johnson must have something going for it and some of the stories do impress. I was unfamiliar with Steven Millhauser’s ‘Flying Carpets’ but his tale of the freedom of youth and its loss is beautiful. He escapes the trap of sentimentality and has that quality that good stories share: the sense that what’s on the surface is the tip of the iceberg with the substance running deep underneath.
The success of this collection though depends partly on the introduction to each story and this is the first problem. While some are enlightening, such as Eugenides’ discussion of Johnson’s ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’, others disappoint. They do open up the story a little but, for a collection that has this element as its selling point, I expected more. Placing them as an afterword might also have been more fitting and I would encourage anyone to read them after the story for them to have the most effect. I also felt that although some stories demanded to be re-read, as with James Salter’s ‘Bangkok’, not all of them were as satisfying.
If you’re not familiar with the form, then this is a good place to begin. There’s plenty here to enjoy. Otherwise, raid the podcast I mentioned earlier. The variety and range of stories available there, with the writers responding to the Deborah Treisman’s probing questions, opens up the stories in surprising ways and leave room for you to think further about the story you’ve just heard. The comparison may be unfair but whatever you do, don’t neglect short stories. They may be brief, but their effect lasts for much much longer.
‘Object Lessons’ is published by Heinemann (2012)