Short Fiction Joys, Pains, Observations, and Recommendations

Here I categorize short novels as being under 200 pages

Short Fiction Joys and Pains

The last four books I read were three short novels (The Sounds of Waves, Tarian Bumi, and Hotel Iris) and one short story collection (The Closed Door and Other Stories). My appetite for shorts has not diminished; I am currently reading another short story collection, Alice Munro’s Runaway. I’m simply loving shorts at the moment. Having gone through a reading slump for most of the year, short novels and short stories are a great cure. They take less time to finish (obviously!) and they need less commitment than novels. They’re like baby steps, really. And hooray to a false sense of productivity.

To plenty of bibliophiles, however, short fiction is a tricky subject. Some love them, some can’t stand them. I fall into the former camp; short stories has got to be my favorite fiction medium. I can easily understand why people don’t like shorter fiction though. To many, shorts aren’t an immersive experience. If you’re going to all that trouble to read, you want to lose yourself in a fictional world. And for much longer. Short fiction can be too abrupt an end. There’s also the medium’s limited scope, lack of subplots and other complex plot strands, and lack of a sprawling cast. On the contemporary front, I hear moans about how recent short stories are nothing more than ostentatious stylistic experiments with little regard to storytelling.

Charles McGrath, former editor of The New York Times, once called short story writers, “people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range.” Ouch. It’s true that short stories are practice outlets for young writers before they venture towards the more ambitious novel, but McGrath’s statement feels like a sweeping generalization. There’s a master for every market and there are masters of short fiction, whether they write shorts exclusively or occasionally.

Besides, it has been a long time since short fiction is considered sexy. Readers who are much older than me talk of how short stories were all the rage up until the last mid-century. So from a publisher’s perspective, maybe what short fiction needs is a marketing overhaul.

Those are my own biases speaking, of course. My love for short fiction itself is predicated on purely personal reasons. Limited scope doesn’t bother me. I love quiet, domestic stories, which short fiction tends to favor. I am an on-the-go reader. I read on the commute to work. I read waiting in line. I read while I eat. Basically, I spend my spare minutes reading rather than curling up with a novel before bed. If I get in bed, I just fall asleep. Short fiction is perfect for on-the-go. I find, and this is a personal observation of course, that complex plot strands are not something you can easily dip in and out of. Family dynamics or the entanglements of a romantic pair is much easier to digest when you read five or ten minutes at a time.

Reading shorter fiction exclusively for almost a month has led me to take more scrutiny of them. I have learned that it is not an easy medium, not really. There is no room for fat and every sentence, every word ought to matter. This is made clear to me when reading Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris. Scenes are cut short. The death of our narrator’s father is glossed over. The sentence “The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me” in Hotel Iris was very jarring. There was no further explanation, just an off-hand remark. I went “what?” and silently entreated the author to explain. I think Ogawa had a lot of ideas for Hotel Iris and wanted to fit them all, but because she was writing a short novel, these ideas were better off scrapped. You can, however, fill a fat novel with all your ideas, even with a two-hundred page philosophical discourse. But with something short, everything needs to be airtight.

This may sound blasé, but I also learned that it is a writer’s skills and choices that matter. You would think that with such cramped space, mellifluous descriptions of place have no place in a short story or short novel. Not so. The Sound of Waves and Hotel Iris are practically paeans to setting. The remote island in The Sound of Waves, the crumbling seaside town in Hotel Iris were all lovingly rendered in minutiae. I remember wishing Tarian Bumi had such attention to place since it was set in Bali and there were so much you could do with describing Bali: the sights, the smells.

The claim that short fiction’s plot can’t be dense is countered by Tarian Bumi. Yes, it is, at heart, a domestic story. But to create four generations of women, each with a fully-realized personality, in 180 pages is a pretty neat feat if you ask me. The Sound of Waves and Hotel Iris are more traditional, both beginning and concluding a romance.

Now. The order of how I recommend them. I like goodreads standards. One star for did not like it, two for it was OK, three for I liked it, four for I really liked it, and five for I loved it. I gave The Closed Door and Other Stories four stars and the three short novels each three stars.

If you want a very good comfort read, with warmth and wit, definitely go for The Closed Door and Other Stories. But if you don’t like simple narratives and think Jane Austen is crap, then it’s not for you. If you want something that will make you think, go for Tarian Bumi (Earth Dance in English). But if you can’t stand (slightly too) fiery feminism, stay away. If you want something a little odd and are fine with descriptions of rough sex, pick up Hotel Iris. Bonus, the prose is spare and lovely. I found Hotel Iris’ major flaw to be its ending: rushed and anticlimactic. If you want a pleasurably sweet story with slow, leisurely, and sure description, even if it’s not particularly memorable, pick up The Sound of Waves.

I’m always wondering what people think of short fiction as I love it so. Let me know in the comments if enjoy shorts or if you think a chunky novel is superior and why. What are your favorite short stories? Who are your favorite short story masters? Do you find short novels frustrating and abrupt? Anything about shorts, go ahead and let me know.

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8 thoughts on “Short Fiction Joys, Pains, Observations, and Recommendations

  1. I really need to read more short novels and short story collections. Usually I prefer longer books because I like investing a lot of time into certain characters but I find that shorter works can sometimes be more impactful because the author uses less space to get to the point. The Sound of Waves sounds so lovely (and the cover is pretty too!) – I need to read it!

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    1. Now that I’ve given it some thought — The Sound of Waves probably was my favorite of the three recent short novels I read. The style is more formal than lyrical (but still very readable) and I really enjoyed Yukio Mishima’s depiction of the lives of people dependent on the sea.

      Your statement that “shorter works can sometimes be more impactful because the author uses less space to get to the point” made me recall a Dorothy Whipple story I read from The Closed Door collection. It was titled “Cover” and while it was only ten pages and the story simple, I felt devastated when I finished it. Probably my favorite story from The Closed Door. I tried looking for a pdf version online but couldn’t find it. You’ll have to get the story in Persephone’s collection, I’m afraid 😛

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  2. I think that shorts would be wonderful hope for those of us experiencing a reading slump as you mentioned in the beginning of your post. Normally, I long to get into the meat of the novel, fully know the characters. But, when times are troubled, or terribly busy, a short would be just the ticket. I like how so many of yours were Japanese in the photo!

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    1. Yes! There are times when short stories and short novels would work so much better for you (reading slumps, business, lack of time) than lengthy epics. So I’m always left surprised whenever another reader denounces short fiction when balance is best. After this short fiction deluge, I’ll be hungry for fat novels all over again, I’m sure.

      Hahaha, I’m actually hankering for another Japanese book. Soon, then.

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  3. I’ve wanted to read Yoko Ogawa’s works, but never really convinced to buy her books. Now that I’ve read this review, I think I’ll give it a try.

    I am not a really big fan of short stories, but I find reading them is good for my reading slumps (less commitment, yay!). So yeah, I keep buying some short stories collection just in case I need them to help me through my reading slumps.

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    1. I’ve read a lot of glowing reviews on Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection Revenge so that might be a better place to start. I didn’t like the ending of Hotel Iris, but that’s just one person’s opinion — I can direct you to two bloggers who thought Hotel Iris was wonderful in every way.

      Is there a particular reason why you’re not a big fan of short stories? I’m always curious about this!

      P.S.: Reading slumps are THE WORST!

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      1. 3 months has passed and things have changed, lol. For the last 3 months, I’ve been in a really bad state of reading slumps. I couldn’t commit on reading a thick novel and found myself reading a quite handful collections of short stories.

        Even though now I’m getting more comfortable at reading short stories, I still clearly remember why I am not a big fan of it. Short stories, especially one that is very very short, are mostly cliffhangers. While I don’t mind reading unresolved stories, I tend to want to know the motive and background of characters. Short stories don’t give me that and sometimes it leaves me uneasy with many “what ifs” in my mind. But, perhaps, it’s because I take reading too seriously so it makes me mad when I don’t get the rationale :))

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