Mode d'emploi: Short Story Collections

Short stories should be savored, drop by drop.
They should not be read too quickly in succession.
The genre holds the potential for the literary equivalent of an intaglio: the perfect literary artifact in miniature.

These are the accepted wisdoms on short fiction, pearls which have given birth to a relationship to collections of short stories that I find alien and alienating. If you are supposed to read them so slowly, one at a time, then the collection must stay around forever. It becomes the ghost on the night table, scaring away new reading adventures with its ghastly smile that morosely and malevolently says, "I'm still here."

Benjamin Franklin once said that visitors, like fish, smell after three days. What are books if not visitors to our minds? You may personally set your expiration date for visitors or books at a week, maybe two, but the fact remains that there is a finite span within which books remain seductive. After that, they become chores. With short fiction there is a fine line between savoring and working.

I hereby publicly throw off the shackles of short fiction dogma, and, to aid in the liberation of my shackled brethren, I will give my own theory on how short story collections should be read. The key word here is quickly.

There are short stories whose perfection makes you gasp at their artistry, as one marvels at the art of intaglio. In all honesty, however, this is rare. To treat all such stories as diamonds in potentia is fruitless and time consuming. Therefore, I recommend that you trust to the acuity of your personal literary taste, and skim. Read short stories like beach reading, until your mind stumbles on one that suggests it might repay a more careful reading.


Maia said...

I love short stories! Cannery Row is my favorite.

Lisa said...

Well said!

Robin said...

I think I tend to think about a short story far longer after I have finished it than I do a novel. There's more left for the mind to chew and worry.