Short stories (1) – Reviews & views.

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories on the web and elsewhere (print, can you believe it? Actual, real, solidtangibleholdablefoldable books!) recently. Partly because I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on longer books (post-degree laziness?) but also because I’ve been quite curious about this form for a while. I have read some of that ‘great’ stuff before, of course, like Joyce’s Dubliners and Chekhov’s short stories and Wilde’s, but it seems to me now that I didn’t really ‘get it’ (or anything, if you’d prefer for me to allow for the semantic plurality of all texts).

Ambitiously, I thought I’d start with someone who is often called ‘the master’ of the short story form; Jorges Luis Borges. Didn’t get it (or anything) in the first story I read (not even the title – ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘). I could sort of see the genius (philosophical and otherwise) behind it, and if I knew more about idealism etc I’d probably understand exactly how Borges’s story manifests his thematic explorations etc etc etc – but hey, let’s face it, I don’t. But it was the second story in the collection that really got me; it was called ‘The Garden of Forking Paths‘ and I’m not sure what it makes the most gripping thing ever, but something does. I am now hooked. I’m afraid I have nothing profounder to say about Borges, unfortunately, because it’s a whole lot beyond me, but I’m willing to accept his ‘genius’ without really understanding it. (Yay for lemming-ness!)

I’ve also been reading a lot of fiction in The New YorkerThe Paris Review, and some others (like Granta). I have to confess: I don’t really like most of it. The NYer and the PR both seem to have an awful penchant for stories which feature the following, sometimes in combination, and in varying degrees of frequency:

  • Doomed love affairs; with the specific sub-set, ‘doomed one-night stands’. Because yes you will have deep, dark, depressing needs that can only be fulfilled by having sex with some impromptu and ill-developed character, but unfortunately once that need is briefly and momentarily satiated, you will return to your dark loveless state.
  • Doomed marriages. This includes all from the very melodramatic – my wife is a really conservative Christian who was further incestuously raped by her uncle oh gooood incest!??!?!?! O – and then adultery! — to the slightly conventional ‘we grew old and fell out of love’ (sometimes with a spicy dash of SO WE COMMIT ADULTERY to follow).
  • Loss of virginity, bizarrely, seems to be cropping up quite often too. This is often followed by the abovementioned ‘doomed one-night stand’ ploy. (But guys – we got over the fact that one’s virginity can be basically meaningless years ago? We know it doesn’t matter if she done gone got deflowered!)
  • Meaningless sex. I cannot reiterate how important this narrative unit is to many of the short stories I have read; there must be sex, and it must necessarily be meaningless (….or is it? Is our protagonist not changèd, nay, affectèd de profundis even one tiny bit?). Ok, ok – let’s reform that ‘meaningless sex’ to, ‘Sex, sometimes exposed as meaningless and a hollow way of filling up the emptiness of one’s life; but at other times, and one might venture to say almost always, touched with a sad and grey pathos, betokening the profundity of physiological feeling and sensation’.

I guess I sound a bit mean – well, I am; sorry – and I also have to say that it’s not that I don’t like many of the stories I read, even when they use these selfsame narrative ploys almost unabashedly. Some of them do it really well. But I’m just slightly astonished at how little there seems to be that people can write about besides (often all of) the above. Can stories really only gain depth, profundity, and meaningfulness (and I’m fairly sure that most of the ones I read were aiming to achieve precisely these wonderful attributes) if they write, rather blandly, about the trials of sex?

The stories I really liked were —

Paul La Farge, Another Life (The New Yorker) – this one does use many of the abovementioned tropes, but the style is really interesting, it’s witty, and it’s interesting. I really did like it, and please please, dear authors, if you must write about doomed relationships and filling the void with stranger-sex, please do it like this!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thank You For the Light (The New Yorker – this was originally rejected by them in 1936, and has been published posthumously) – this is amazing; it’s sweet, it’s beautifully crafted (though not so well as most of his works, it is still a great deal better than a lot of other things that are being published…). It’s incredible how well constructed the character – her voice and her quirks, her situation, the America she lives in – all are, and in such a small number of words! (Tessa Hadley, also in The New Yorker, can’t quite do it in 8 whopping pages of thick prose – as this website aptly summarizes all 8 pages, “A teenage girl in 1960s England loses her virginity.” Whoop de doo! Fitzgerald does it in less than two. Take notes.)

Justin Taylor, After Ellen (The New Yorker) – I probably liked this one the least, but I still liked it. It was engaging, I liked the way he worked so many of the technological things we accept tacitly these days (like Facebook and ‘defriendings’) are worked into the story without a fuss. I can imagine this is hard to do; I know for sure that if I were writing a story, I’d put it in in a rather painstaking, try-hard, and overly-obvious kind of way, so kudos to Taylor for that! He’s gotten a lot of flak, too, for his really dislikable protagonist – but I think it’s brave, and it works. My enjoyment of the story isn’t diminished by the fact that I don’t quite like Scott.

Jeanette Winterson, All I Know About Gertrude Stein (Granta) – Oh. My. Gad. I cannot recommend this story enough. If there’s one story out of the many I’ve been reading recently (online, I stress) that really stands out as beautiful, touching, and good, it’s this one. Not only does it, much to my prejudiced joy, dispose with the easy narrative stuff above, but its discussion about ‘love’ and how little it features in queries and questionings these days is actually a really interesting idea. Maybe not one to agree with, but interesting. And it is beautifully put. I just loved how fresh and how different this story was, how it played with form (now, what is the meaning of linking Gertrude Stein’s biography with an unknown first-person narrator’s monological musings? I don’t know – but it makes me curious, I want to delve further) and how it brought such an interesting and (sadly, going by so much out there) fresh perspective into play. (Are MFA classes being taught, wholesale, that only ‘sex sells’?)


Y’know what? Spilt ink is pretty. Nothing to cry about at all.

Am I being unduly horrible? Probably. I am sorry. Maybe I just had the misfortune to click on about five stories which all happened to be unfortunately too similar. Although I have a sneaking suspicion I have described a fair demographic up above.

Are there any really wonderful stories out there that I must read?!

  1. Thanks for listing stories you like. I’ll see if I can find them. I write short stories too, and am always amazed about how unsatifactory so many seem that I read in literary journals. I’ll have to start keeping a list on the ones I do like–great idea–to share with others.

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for commenting! My blog layout isn’t the greatest in a lot of respects, but I have actually linked the 4 stories I did like, to make it easier for you to find them! (Sorry it isn’t that visible… I need to fish around for a different theme at some point.) You write short stories! That’s amazing; I have been trying to recently but it’s incredibly difficult. I agree with you 100% about the unsatisfactory-ness of many short stories out in the literary loop these days; they all seem so formulaic and samey!

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