31 Days of Stories 2014: Introduction

April 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

“No one likes short-story collections,” claims Julian Gough in a recent interview with the U.K. Sunday Times. “They never sell, because it’s not a natural art form. You don’t want to read 20 short stories in a row by the same writer. It’s like eating 20 truffles in a row.”

While this is obviously an enormous generalization, it’s one I’ve heard before in various contexts. Story collections are like the LPs of literature (as opposed to novels, which resemble concept albums – at least, I think so: I’m still developing that analogy). But for those of a certain age – that is, those who did not grow up in thrall to iTunes – there is a certain pleasure in listening to an album from top to bottom. Sequencing of tracks is important: songs segue into one another, play off one another, engage in dialogue with one another. There is pleasure to be found there, regardless of whether story collections or LPs constitute “natural” art forms (whatever that means).

On the other hand, there is Mavis Gallant, who would seem to be in agreement with Gough. Gallant was of the opinion that stories “are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” This, too, is a generalization, albeit not such an egregious one as Gough’s. Stories may not constitute chapters of novels, but there are certain volumes – Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women or Who Do You Think You Are?; Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love – that straddle the line between collections and novels, exhibiting all the properties of each form, depending upon how one views them.

Other collections (Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges or A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor) exemplify their authors’ individual concerns or sensibilities; still others (Savage Love by Douglas Glover is a prime example) include stories that range widely across different forms and genres. Indeed, one of the abiding attractions of the short-story form – including the short-story collection – is its malleability, something that should be evident whether a reader gorges on several stories at a single sitting, or parcels them out one at a time.

The protean nature of the form is one of the things that has always attracted me to short fiction, and it is one of the principles that has informed the month-long celebration of short stories that this site has engaged in annually for the past seven years. Writers, especially, are attracted to short fiction because of the challenges and opportunities it offers to experiment with style and technique and language; each year yields new examples of practitioners who are pushing the form in interesting directions and expanding our ideas about what a story can be or do. The Chekhovian model of naturalistic stories, characterized by Donald Barthelme as being “constructed mousetrap-like to supply, at the finish, a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated,” has been successfully subverted and challenged by authors as diverse as Borges, Kafka, Cortázar, Lydia Davis, Etgar Keret, and Barthelme himself (to name just a few story writers past and present who have eschewed the straightforward mode of storytelling predicated upon a small epiphany or psychological realization on the part of the protagonist).

One of the elements that allows for this broad field of experimentation is short fiction’s necessary reliance on a concentration of language, something that locates the story closer to poetry than to the novel on a spectrum of literary forms. (The critic Zachariah Wells once defined a short story as “a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin.”) Story writers also share with poets a penchant for metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, as well as a resistance to closure – all things that make timid readers suspicious.

For the courageous, however, for those possessed of a love of language and a sense of play, short stories provide a seemingly endless array of wonders and delights. During the month of May, it is my intention once again to spotlight what I hope will turn out to be a small cross-section of writing in the short-fiction form, drawing in writers from Canada and abroad, past and present, in English and in translation.

This year, inevitably, we must begin on a melancholy note, by turning our attention to a trio of literary giants who have died in recent weeks: Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, and Gabriel García Márquez. These will not be the only featured authors to have shuffled off this mortal coil, but we will also attempt to traffic a bit in the land of the living as the days go by. The hope is that at the end of the month, the stories that have been aggregated here might serve as a strong introductory anthology for people interested in exploring the form, or a springboard for further reading.

Responding to Gough’s comments on Facebook, novelist and short-story writer Elisabeth de Mariaffi wrote, “So short stories = the truffles of literature! Just as I suspected!” Over the next four weeks, let’s gorge on some truffles.

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