I’ve been thinking about short stories a lot over the last couple of weeks, as I have an event coming up this Friday with fellow writer, Hannah Storm, where we will be in conversation about our love for the shorter prose forms. (Friday 21st July at 7.30pm, Kemps Bookshop, Malton)

Although short fiction is perfectly suited to the pace and attention span of the modern world, some readers say they don’t read shorts because they can’t lose themselves in the story the way they can in a novel. It’s true that they demand a more finely-tuned focus, that every sentence weighs in heavy because it has to earn its place. Yet these things bring their own rewards. A cracking story will repay your time and attention by leaving you with something to think about for days after you’ve read it.

When I’ve finished reading a novel I usually pass it on, however I often keep short story collections, returning to them over the years in the same way I do with poetry. I have countless favourites, many by established authors, but also a growing number by emerging writers. The collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, Helen Dunmore, A L Kennedy, Lucy Caldwell, Louise Kennedy, Wells Tower, Stuart Evers, Miranda July, Yoko Ogawa, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Alison Moore, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.

Stylistically, Hemingway’s short stories are near the top of my list — his concise, declarative sentences; his restricted choice of words and sparing use of adjectives; the cadence, the deliberate repetition — all deceptively simple. He also knew that most of the story should be out of sight, beneath the surface:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader . . . will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

I’m also a huge admirer of Japanese novellas and short stories. Japanese literature is often poetic, quiet, unhurried, and that way of writing often suits the short story form. Sparing and effective use of language, subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all demand that the stories are read slowly, and that they are re-read and savoured. These are the qualities that draw me back again and again, and the tales of yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction. I really like Murakami’s short stories, and particularly enjoyed his collection, Men Without Women. Murakami is renowned for his surreal writing, yet I prefer his stories when he writes of single men and smoky bars, lonely hearts and enigmatic women. I also love the short stories and novels of Yoko Ogawa. Like Murakami, her writing is often surreal, and can be unsettling and even grotesque. She is adept at self-observation and dissecting women’s roles in Japanese society.

For fresh contemporary writing, I recommend Miranda July. Her stories are unsettling, quirky, alternately grounded and surreal, oddball, off-beat, skewed. Yet they betray vulnerability, and are both raw and poignant.

One of the funniest scenes I’ve come across in a short story is in Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, from his collection, Five Nocturnes. The description of the protagonist pretending to be a dog in order to cover up the accidental damage he has caused in his friend’s apartment had me crying with laughter. I’ve only read the story once – I think I’m frightened something will be lost if I read it again, and that the humour was possibly magnified by my particular mood at the time I read it!

As a writer, I enjoy crafting short stories because you are always working with the whole of the canvas, and there is the illusion of control. I think there are more options to experiment with voice and tense and POV than with a longer piece of work, and you aren’t as obligated to tie everything up with a neat ending as when writing a novel. You can leave the reader to think, to work certain things out for themselves – but you mustn’t leave them confused or frustrated. There’s no excuse for not knowing the ending yourself!

(My fifth short story collection, Each of Us a Petal, comes out next spring with Victorina Press.)

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