There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).
But let’s get back to the quote…
What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.
I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).
I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.
With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading — written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.
So, here they are:
1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man
From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).
Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets — the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.
The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).
2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist
From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).
Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.
What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.
Read it here.
3. Raymond Carver — Errand
From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).
Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).
One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.
(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)
You can read Errand here.
4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers
From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).
The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.
Read it here.
5. Stephen King — Premium Harmony
From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).
Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.
In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche — a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.
You can read it here.
6. S.J. Coules — Photographs
From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’
You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.
My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written — many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.
In Photographs — my first published short story — a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.
You can read it here.
Anyway, last orders have been called.
Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .