Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Guest Article: What We Talk About When We Talk About Short Stories, by Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman is a short story writer based in Jerusalem, Israel. Her stories have been published in print and online, broadcast on BBC Radio and in podcasts, and won several awards. She is the founder and editor of The Short Review, a site dedicated to reviewing short story collections and anthologies. Her own first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, has just been published on September 1st by Salt Modern Fiction. Tania’s website is www.taniahershman.com and she blogs at www.titaniawrites.blogspot.com .

* Many thanks to Oksana Badrak for the illustration, ‘Winter Fox’ – we thought it would go nicely with the wintry look of Tania’s collection. . .

-:oOo:-

First, I would like to thank the excellent Vulpes Libris for inviting me to be a guest blogger in Short Story Week  – and for having a Short Story Week. Thank you!  

Second, I would like to tell you what I will not be talking about. I won’t be: 

  1. Talking about the short story collection as the victim of the narrow-minded publishing industry, how sad it all is, if only they could all wise up etc…etc..
  2. Trying to persuade the readers of this blog to abandon all novels and move wholeheartedly and exclusively to short story collections because they are far superior
  3. Saying things like, “Well, in this day and age, with the diminishing attention spans and tiny screens on mobile devices, shouldn’t short stories just be a perfect fit?”

None of the above, I feel, does anything to inspire readers. Who wants to read the “poor short story” that no-one thinks is really as good as a novel? Do short story writers want to be read out of pity? I don’t think so.  

What I am going to talk about, on the assumption that you are all reading this because you have a love for the written word, in whatever form, is what a short story is for me and why I set up The Short Review.

What is a short story and how should one be approached if met in the wild? 

To me, the short story is a different from the novel as poetry is from, say, screenwriting. While a screenplay may be described as “poetic” and a poem may have filmic qualities, no-one would categorise them as the same species. So why do short stories and novels so often get lumped together? A short story is not a “shrunken” novel; a novel is not what happens when you keep writing a short story and it gets longer and longer. Of course there are examples of either situation (I tend to feel that most of the fiction published in a certain well-known American weekly magazine is more of the mini-novel variety). A great short story is just that. It has the magic that comes with brevity; it can do things a novel can never do, not despite the fact that there aren’t 700 pages in which to get to know the characters, but because of it.  

The main point I want to make here is that if you are a reader, if you love books, great writing, strong characters, complex plots, excitement, emotion, tension, denouement, satisfaction, then you will find all this and more in a short story and in short story collections and anthologies.  

This seems like a good juncture to stop and talk a little about me. I have been writing short stories for ten years or so, and last summer I received the life-changing news that Salt publishing had accepted my first collection for publication. (It will be out on Sept 1st.) This was my heart’s desire, my dream since childhood. And, suddenly, it was offered to me. Alongside the overwhelming delight was a sense of blankness: what to do next? All the stories for the collection were already written and I didn’t have a next project in mind.  

After thinking for a few months, I decided I wanted to do something short story-related, but that didn’t involve the writing of short stories – and it dawned on me that, rather than blaming publishers for not being keen on first time authors and their story collections, the fault actually lay with reviewers: if the reading public didn’t see reviews of short story collections in the newspapers and online, how did they know what collections they might like and want to buy? Thus, The Short Review was born, and it has grown beyond all expectations, teaching me so much along the way.

The Short Review’s slogan is: “Where short story collections step into the spotlight”. It’s my small attempt to redress the reviewing balance – by giving short story collections and anthologies their own space, away from novels, poetry etc…  

The aim was to make the site a one-stop-shop (originally without the shop – although we’ve recently added links to online booksellers) for all things short-story-collection-related. Ten new reviews every month of collections and anthologies – not just new ones but older books, classics, across all genres. To give you a taste, on our categories page, which is constantly expanding, we currently list: Anthologies, Award Winners, Best Of…., Children’s, Classic short stories, Crime, Début, Environmental, Erotica, Experimental, Fantasy, Flash fiction, Funny, Gay Fiction, Historical, Horror, In Translation, Jewish, Lad Lit, Love & Romance, Magical realist/surreal, Novel-in-stories,s Pop culture, Quirky, Realistic/gritty, Science Fiction, Small Press, Steampunk, Young Adult. And our forty or so reviewers are free to make up categories for each book they review, if these don’t fit.  

A collection can be listed under more than one category – Funny Science Fiction, for example, or Fantasy flash fiction. To be honest with you, I don’t believe in labelling, in shelving books on one shelf and not another. These distinctions are artificially imposed: my only aim here is to demonstrate what an enormous range there is within the short story.  

This is something I wasn’t necessarily aware of until I began reviewing myself. I received, and continue to receive, offers of books by authors I had never heard of and which came with labels I was not familiar with. For example, Kelley Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, was described to me as “feminist science fiction”. Not being a reader of science fiction, or feminist fiction, or the combination, I naively assumed it would be about female aliens or starship commanders. In truth, I wasn’t looking forward to reading it. What I found was, to quote my review, “seven poignant, sensual and often poetic stories, of musicians, actors, theatre directors, journalists, most of whom inhabit worlds much like my own but with slight twists, shifts of fundamental rules and expectations.” I call this great writing, nothing more and nothing less.

Something else that came as a great surprise to me was how many short story collections and anthologies are actually being published. Bored one day last December, I decided to look up “forthcoming short stories” on Amazon. Pages and pages of short story collections due to be published in 2008. I set up a new page on the site, and listed them all. I have been adding to it ever since as I hear about more and more  – collections and anthologies from new names, familiar names, small presses, competition winners. Anthologies on themes: Mongolian women writers, five-minute erotica, fiction inspired by pop groups. The modern Libyan short story; Basque short fiction. Re-releases of Chekhov, Kafka.   

I was someone who had been actively searching for short stories to read and I had no idea all these books were being published. 120 books in the first three months of 2008 alone! If I didn’t know about them… how would anyone else? 

Along the way, we’ve added extras to the site, such as Author Interviews which are, frankly, for my benefit. An author is asked nine set questions, such as “What does ‘story’ mean to you?”, “How does it feel to know that people are buying your book?”, and “Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?” I wanted to see how other short story writers went about their writing, and how they feel about what they do. I wanted to know what it was like to have a book out there.  

For example, Sylvia Petter, author of Back Burning, said: “I’m always happy when people buy my books. But I’m happier when I hear that they have found something in them that has touched them in some way. Once the book is out there, it’s a part of yourself that you’re sharing – what you believe in, in a way”. Sarah Salway, author of Leading the Dance,  said she “went through a stage of feeling sick when I knew someone had read my work in case they didn’t like it, or thought I was ‘odd’. But now I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will always be some people who won’t like my stuff and also that I am definitely ‘odd’ !”

Kevin Barry, I learned, hides in bookshops, spying on browsers to see if they are buying his collection, There Are Little Kingdoms. Nikki Aguirre, author of 29 Ways to Drown, carries: “… a negative critic in my head. He keeps me on my toes and says all the biting things no one else dares. I let him too, but sometimes he gets carried away and won’t stop yapping. Then I have to threaten his chocolate intake. Oh, I can be cruel.” 

And what does “story” mean to all these short story writers? Anything and everything, from “the feeling of holding onto a sparkling handrail into the dark” (Aimee Bender), and “something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it” (Elizabeth Baines), to “the movement of a character from one place to another, how he or she got there, and what it means when they wind up in the new place” (Dave Housley), “a kind of uneasy, fetching trip that has a beginning middle and end, which doesn’t mean anything gets resolved, but an event or a worry gets worked through in an illuminating and, hopefully, generous way and you walk away knowing more than maybe you meant to” (Pia Z. Ehrhardt), and simply “the intense pleasure of getting to know another human being” (Paddy O’Reilly).  

So, to sum up: if you want to grasp a sparkling handrail, go on a trip which will leave you knowing more than you meant to, get to know another human being, be delighted by erotic lad lit science fiction or historical magical realism in translation, and make a short story writer lurking in your local bookshop very happy, go and buy – or borrow – a short story collection. Thank you.

18 comments on “Guest Article: What We Talk About When We Talk About Short Stories, by Tania Hershman

  1. Sharon
    September 3, 2008

    Hi Tania – great article. We at Two Ravens Press set out back in 2006 with every intention of publishing short stories as well as novels and poetry. As time goes by, though, we’ve become super-cautious. It’s true that there are short story collections being published but they are incredibly hard to sell. Which means that as a publisher you run the risk of not even making your money back and covering your time. If we sell 300 copies of a short story collection it’s a red-letter day! but we’ve still hardly covered our costs. And that would be almost entirely due to the activity of the author in getting them out there and doing readings – a bit like poetry. It’s hard to blame publishers, or even reviewers – the truth is that when you put them in the bookstores the reading public just doesn’t seem to want them – it’s as simple as that. Which is a great pity. And what’s always interesting to me is how little cross-over there is between novels and short stories – we’ve published two great and unique collections by authors who’ve previously had some success with their novels, often through other (bigger) publishers – thinking that people who loved their novels would be looking for other writing by those authors and would buy the short stories. Nope! But, ever-optimistic, we’ve just taken on another couple of collections for 2009… So your initiative on The Short Review is very very welcome and best of luck with the new collection!

  2. Tania Hershman
    September 3, 2008

    Sharon,
    I hear you. It is odd, especially what you mention about what happens to the collections by the authors whose novels were successful. It makes very little sense to me, and I don’t see it changing overnight. We all do what we can – as the editor of the Short Review and as a short story author myself, I know that it’s a lot of hard work! I look forward to review copies of your collections in 2009, thank you for your support of the short story.

  3. RosyB
    September 3, 2008

    Great piece and I laughed at the start where you talk of the old “attention span” chestnut or the way there is sometimes battle-lines drawn between the novel and the short story.

    I’ve presented myself as Ms Anti-Shstory this week, which isn’t strictly-speaking true. I suppose I was trying to voice a few feelings and prejudices I have to see if there was any getting to the bottom of why there is less of a market for short story collections. I thought if I just opened up a bit maybe other people would feel freer to put their views either way. My thoughts are all scattered about the week but basically are along the lines of:

    1. Short stories can be a bit worthy
    2. They often concentrate on the small and make small moments deeply significant
    3. You don’t have much guarantee that anything is going to happen
    4. They seem to tend towards the bleak and small-scale rather than the fun and overblown
    4. They tend to make you study the things at school which is enough to give anyone a complex about them.

    I also paint myself as a shstory ignoramus but thinking about it I have read Mansfield, Munro, Carver, Maugham, Joyce. I also recently read Ewan Morrison and Philip o Ceallaigh’s Notes from A Turkish Whorehouse. I’ve also read Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas (I know they don’t count but they are doing something related).

    So I’m not a total no-hoper from the short story point of view. But i do admit that even though I’ve read some great stories, I am still more reluctant than not to pick up a book of short stories. Even those that I can understand are really good and well-written often don’t totally do it for me and sometimes it’s as though they have a certain remoteness about them.

    The exception to all of this (which I also wrote on the other thread) was when I went to short story readings in the morning at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year. Coffee, croissant and a story. And it was brilliant. I saw Ewan Morrison and Laura Hird and enjoyed both tremendously. For some reason being read a story in a space where they have created that quite contemplative atmosphere is magical. For some reason this is never the kind of atmosphere I ever seem to be in at home. I wonder if this links in with what Sharon is saying about readings. Perhaps readings are important to remind us and make us stop and listen for a second to something that isn’t as noisy or big or demanding of our attention. I don’t know.

    I also just want to say that Laura Hird’s “Meat” was quite different to my idea of short stories as it was very visceral and active and passionate moment by moment – without having too many events or whatever. It was the opposite of remote.


    just to add. I wonder if another advantage of a reading is that you hear an individual story. Perhaps it is the collection notion that is more tricky because you need to readjust who and what and where and why all the time. Perhaps for someone like myself I should try an individual story all on its own.

  4. Elizabeth
    September 3, 2008

    I wonder if one of the problems is that a book of short stories shouldn’t really be read in the way we read a novel – ie as a BOOK, if you see what i mean, but more in the way of box to dip into, rather in the way we read a book of poems. I think there’s a real clue in what Rosie says about the reading at the Ed Fest: a short story needs to be read in isolation from all others, alone, it needs its own special space. As I’ve said before, when I write novels it’s more of a rushing-ahead, thinking ahead process, whereas when i write a short story I’m dropping a stone into a pond (or a scary well) and waiting for the ripples to form or the echoes to surround me: I need to listen and observe more carefully. I think these differences also relate to the ways in which the two forms need to be read. Which is why it’s really silly when people try to sell short stories as a fast read for a fast age – if you read them like tat they certainly will feel like an unsatisfying meal. I’d add if you’re not reading them in the way they need to be read it’s harder to see what they really are and easier to preserve your prejudices about them. The point about them needing to be read with attention was made strongly by the writer Claire Keegan when she was recently award the Edge Hill prize. ‘No wonder they’re unpopular, then,’ she said rather wryly.

    Great article, Tania.

  5. Women Rule Writer
    September 3, 2008

    I enjoyed your article, Tania.
    It is hard to sell the short story to non-story lovers. As an addict, I always wish they would just try it and see, but they are a resistant lot! I hardly ever read novels anymore, I am so in love with short fiction. It’s like changing from full fat to low fat milk – you rarely go back. Or something like that anyhow!

  6. Article writers
    September 3, 2008

    Hi Tania – great article. It’s true that there are short story collections being published but they are incredibly hard to sell. Which means that as a publisher you run the risk of not even making your money back and covering your time. If we sell 300 copies of a short story collection it’s a red-letter day! It’s hard to blame publishers, or even reviewers – the truth is that when you put them in the bookstores the reading public just doesn’t seem to want them – it’s as simple as that. Which is a great pity.

  7. Elizabeth
    September 3, 2008

    Rosy, I’m sorry, I realize looking back that you had already come to the same conclusion in your addition, ie re reading stories individually rather than as part of a collection. Talk about not reading with due attention!!!

    I think it’s a bit of a shame that there’s a tendency now to publish stories which ‘make a good collection’ – are linked in some way. You can understand it as a marketing strategy but I think that by colluding with the tendency to read collections like novels it undermines the short story in the end and leads to that sense of choppiness and incompleteness in the reading experience.

  8. Trilby
    September 3, 2008

    Thanks for the great article, Tania. The Short Review sounds like a great idea.

    But Rosy! Rosy, Rosy, Rosy…

    “1. Short stories can be a bit worthy”

    As can novels and (most particularly, I might venture), poetry. Not to mention avant-garde plays, readings, and radio specials…

    “2. They often concentrate on the small and make small moments deeply significant”

    What’s wrong with this? Small moments *are* significant. McEwan wrote a fabulous novel – which runs at quite a healthy length – based entirely on the flash decision that a young girl makes in a moment of childish jealousy. The effects reach beyond her own life into the lives of several others, to devastating effect.

    “3. You don’t have much guarantee that anything is going to happen”

    It is quite possible to have a story in which nothing “happens” – a lot of these will be quite dull and almost certainly third-rate. A few will be utter gems, because they’re about quality of writing more than plot (I’ll be mentioning a Hemingway example in my American roundup later on!)

    “4. They seem to tend towards the bleak and small-scale rather than the fun and overblown”

    I’d recommend Karen Russell as an antidote to this one!

    “5. They tend to make you study the things at school which is enough to give anyone a complex about them.”

    Ah, the old “the made me read it at school so I hate it” moan. By the same logic, we should hate flowers because we were forced to learn about photosynthesis and should eschew physical exercise because we were never any good on the sports pitch. I wonder if it would help if more students were asked to *write* short stories at school – one of my favourite classes was a writing class I took in my final year, where ten students spent most of the time reading our stories aloud and critiquing (gently at first, as is the tendency among teenage girls, then more animatedly) each others’ work. It was fab.

  9. Tania Hershman
    September 3, 2008

    Gosh, I go off for a couple of hours and there’s full scale short story arguing going on! How wonderful! I am certainly not going to spend time persuading Rosy – or anyone else who doesn’t really feel like picking up a short story collection – that they “must”. I’ll just say, I’m glad you enjoyed the readings, the short story does lend itself to that, as with the BBC Afternoon Reading, because you can have a complete experience, rather than just a teaser of a novel. But, frankly, Rosy, it’s your loss! And I mean that in the nicest possible way, honest 🙂 I don’t believe there’s anything negative you can say about a short story collection that you couldn’t say equally about a novel or any other written material – worthy, dull, plotless, bleak… I have a list of novels that fit those categories too, and I am far more pissed off at the end of a bad novel, which I have invested in, than at the end of a bad short story!

    Elizabeth – you are so right about attention, you simply can’t skim a short story – or if you can, then it hasn’t been edited well enough!

    WRW, I agree, I read mainly short stories these days, perhaps it is a mental switch, a switch of intent, of focus.

    Trilby,
    glad you enjoyed it. I will leave you to so ably counter Rosy’s points! By the way, I never read short stories at school, it was all Silas Marner, D H Lawrence, Jane Austen. Short stories would have been a wonderful relief!

  10. Flood
    September 3, 2008

    Loved the article Tania, and the discussion. Probably my favourite moment was when wrw made the milk comparison, excellent!

    As ever with my insanely diplomatic soul, I think it all comes down to horses and courses. As Tania so wisely says, there is no point trying to push short stories on people, they either get something out of them or they don’t, and I admire Rosy’s honesty/urge to stir up debate even if I don’t agree with all her points.

    Some of the best short stories can have the impact of a novel, as can a novel or film, it’s all about those connections, the ache, why the subject/character/plot (or not!) MATTERS. And sometimes these things stay with us and resonate through our little souls and sometimes we just think, huh. (shrug.)

    Either way, I hope things continue to look up for the shstory (as Rosy calls it) and am really glad to have The Short Review, comps like Sean O’Faolain/Frank O’Connor/ETC! and publishers like Salt championing it and taking risks as that makes the whole publishing industry richer as well as the world of reading (especially for the short story lovers out there.)

    Long live the short story, say I!

  11. Nik
    September 3, 2008

    Great article, Tania (and what interesting responses).

    Nik

  12. Jackie
    September 3, 2008

    What a great post, it has everything; humor, fun facts, anecdotes, an enjoyable read. Plus Ms. Hershman brings up a lot of good points, especially about short stories being taken on their own terms and how they can encapsulate and explore moments that might get lost in longer forms. My technique for reading short story collections is to intersperse each between other reads, that way I can focus on each specific tale without them blending together. I’ll definitely be checking out her Short Review website for reading recommendations.
    Congratulations on publication, I hope sales are brisk!
    And I love the accompanying painting!

  13. Leena
    September 4, 2008

    Very interesting what many of you say about reading collections of short stories. I, too, find it a strange, sometimes even stressful experience – and it has a lot to do with feeling that you’re ‘supposed’ to read a book straight through. Would be interesting to compare it to listening to entire albums vs. individual tracks of music.

    Playing the devil’s advocate here for a moment, I think it can also be a bit prescriptive to say that short stories are inevitably a whole different species compared with novels, that they shouldn’t be read the same way, etc., etc. I’m not an expert on short stories by any means, but some of the best stories I’ve read have functioned like ‘miniature novels’ – conventional novels, even – in structure, in page-turning quality (I didn’t necessarily feel the need to read them super-slowly), in scope… some of them spanning even decades. Admittedly most of these are rather old stories, but even so. I don’t find them wanting in any way; I wasn’t hoping they’d have been longer – they were short tales, and perfect as such.

    I have enjoyed plenty of stories that function – to adopt Elizabeth’s lovely description – like ripples in a pond, so I have no issue with that. But I suppose what I’m thinking is that you have, on the one hand, short story writers who are inclined to this kind of writing; and on the other hand you often have novelists treating the short story form as if it were the perfect place to dump their half-baked ideas just because they’re loath to abandon them entirely. But where does this leave writers who may have a novelist’s instincts in many ways, and yet be naturally inclined to a shorter form of expression? I suspect many of them never feel at home with the modern short story, and end up writing those novels that feel too long even at 200 pages…

  14. Kelley Eskridge
    September 5, 2008

    Tania, thanks for this cogent rallying cry for the short story. And thanks very much for your kind words about Dangerous Space. I was delighted by your thoughtful review, and even happier to see that something of the book has stayed with you… connecting with other human beings through story is a thrill for me, of which I will never tire.

    Like Rosy, I can become tired of short fiction in which nothing happens for ten pages and then the story just seems to “stop” instead of end — in other words, pretty much every story The New Yorker has published in the last ten years. And it is these kinds of stories that are held up as the literary gold standard, the “best” kind of short writing.

    I am weary of those standards. We as readers are so different, and bring such variety of experience, passions, hopes, fears and curiosity to a text — why should there not be room for all of us to read, and write, what moves us?

    Tania, I’m grateful to you for all the work you do in service of promoting short fiction, and I’m especially grateful that you do so in the spirit of helping people find work that will speak to them.

    Rosy, I swear, all short stories are not like what you describe. There is so much more out there.

    Leena, your point about length is well taken. I like to think of writers having a particular “focal length” where we are naturally most comfortable. That doesn’t mean we can’t go longer or shorter — just that we have to be more skilled at those lengths. My collection includes two novellas, a length that I absolutely adore and that I think allows for the unfurling of emotional arcs, and journeys of character, that are every bit as compelling as novels.

    Thanks to Vulpes Libris for hosting this interesting discussion. I’ll be linking back to it from my own blog.

  15. Pingback: Let’s talk about short stories : kelleyeskridge.com

  16. karina
    September 6, 2008

    Wow. I’m going to visit this site obsessively from now on. Thanks for opening up this space and writing this article.

    If readers (and sometimes even authors) knew how to approach the short story, we’d be onto something. I’ll have to use an analogy from elsewhere because I grew up reading short stories, so I can’t say I ever expected them to be anything other than themselves. Here it goes…

    Stories are as related to novels as theater is to film. They may seem like they are interchangeable, and a lot of people will try to do just that. I once dated an actress and watched play after play with her. I was working in film then, so you can imagine how much we argued about the differences and similarities of these media, their merits and shortcomings.

    Like those short stories that read like mini-novels, most of the plays we attended felt like ultra-low budget movies. Most of them bet their souls on pyrotechnics to keep the audience from jumping ship. I was often cocky and annoying enough to say, “Show me something theater can do that film can’t.” Well, I got my wish. The moment happened during Virtual Solitaire by Dawson Nichols. It was a monologue about, of all things, a virtual reality tester. My jaw dropped and I wanted to jump up and down with excitement. I couldn’t imagine any film achieving what Dawson (yes, the author was also the sole actor) could on that stage. It didn’t matter if the movie got a $200-million budget, it couldn’t get any better than Dawson’s performance. What a revelation.

    That’s what I look for in short stories, the moments that can’t be obtained elsewhere. I just can’t get enough. I even physically sleep on short stories now that my bookshelves have ran out of space and I must keep stacking them under the bed.

    Tania, by making readers aware of the options and giving them pointers on how to approach the chimeras of short fiction, you are basically taking that skeptic theater-trashing audience from play to play until they find their very own Virtual Solitaire.

  17. Tania Hershman
    September 8, 2008

    Karina,
    thank you so much, what a wonderful analogy you used. I am honoured that you took the time to leave a comment.

    Tania

  18. Tim Jones
    September 12, 2008

    Re Leena’s point (#13) about feeling that one is supposed to read short story collections all the way through: some reviewers and readers of my short story collection “Transported” have commented that it’s too diverse, while others have loved the diversity. Of course, both viewpoints are perfectly valid, but I think of short story collections as books to dip into – so diversity is what I’m looking for. Most reviewers will presumably read short story collections straight through, so they’ll tend to prefer unity of themes, styles and even story lengths.

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This entry was posted on September 3, 2008 by in Fiction: short stories, Special Features and tagged .

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