Armchair BEA: Short Stories

This is a topic near and dear to my literary heart. For years I read short stories almost exclusively: collections, anthologies, literary journals, and magazines. I own every Best American Short Stories edition since 1995, when I first became interested in the form. I kept subscriptions to Tin House, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, One Story, Harper’s, and The New Yorker until the piles of magazines and journals threatened to crowd us out of our home. I’m always vexed when people tell me they don’t “get” short stories. They seem to believe short stories are either too dense and “literary” to be entertaining, or they expect them to be “bite size” literary experiences when they don’t have time to read longer works. Either way, the short story gets short shrift. (Go ahead, say that five times fast!)

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, it was a banner moment for the short story. Creative writing programs across the country have seemed to contribute to the popular idea (among both writers and readers) that short story collections are “starter” efforts for serious writers, a way for them to flex their literary muscle before they get down to the “real” work of writing a novel.  By awarding Munro—who writes short stories almost exclusively—with the prize, the Nobel committee also conferred a higher status to the short story, recognizing it as a distinctive and worthy form apart from the novel.

Like the best novels, the best short stories are character-driven. In other words, the plot derives from character, not the other way around, and for readers who are more focused on “what happens” than on underlying motives and behaviors that drive action, short stories might take some getting used to. Writers tend to focus more on language in short stories. That’s not to say that plenty of novelists aren’t concerned with language, but simply that in the short story the language must do much more heavy lifting than in the novel because of the shorter form. In that way, the best short stories have more in common with poetry than with novels.

If you are interested in reading short stories but you aren’t sure where to begin, anthologies are a great place to start because you’re exposed to different writers and can get a sense of what you as a reader expect and enjoy from stories. The Best American series of anthologies is wonderful (I am partial to Best American Mystery Stories in addition to the annual “literary” short story collection), as are The O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Stories. Beyond that, I’ve listed some of my favorite collections:

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage, by Alice Munro

Rare and Endangered Species, by Richard Bausch

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

After Rain, by William Trevor

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett

The Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter

Rock Springs, Richard Ford

Almost No Memory, Lydia Davis

Monogamy, by Marly Swick

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky, Mary Robison

Female Trouble, by Antonia Nelson

Heat, Joyce Carol Oates

In the Garden of North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff

Delicate, Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

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9 comments

  1. Wow wow and wow on your short story collections! Think I would love browsing your bookshelves. I must say I gave a WOOT when I heard the who was award the Nobel prize for literature. She is seriously good at what she does…am just finishing up Dear Life and have read many of hers before that. I have book marked this post so I can keep coming back for recommendations. Thanks!

  2. Deb, I actually shouted and then started to cry. I am always happy to know another Munro fan! I hope you get to read some of the books on the list–if you do, I would love to hear what you liked/didn’t like!

  3. I took the New Yorker subscription mainly to read the short stories, and that was a BIG fail! Still, I have all those issues, so I plan to read them. I do read a few short stories, just not enough. I do better if I read a story at a time, rather than deal with short story collections.

  4. Athira, anthologies would be perfect for you, because they’ve got a lot of variety and are easy to pick up at will. The New Yorker tends to carry a specific kind of story, and also to feature the same authors quite frequently. Also, could be that you haven’t found the “right” collection for you. I have met plenty of collections I didn’t like. (I sound like a matchmaker.)

  5. I really do want to read Alice Munro. This has been a great topic for Armchair BEA, I think, because it has prompted me to think more about short stories… And why I’ve felt that I struggled with them. maybe time to reconsider! Thanks for stopping by my blog. (Leila from Readers’ Oasis)

  6. Leila, thanks for visiting! Do any of your favorite writers write short stories? You might start there. I got into reading short stories mainly by reading the Best American series, but the Richard Bausch and the Charles Baxter books I listed were two of the first collections I read. I recommend them both highly for someone getting her feet wet!

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