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Make it short: secret lives of short stories

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on February 21, 2016

Some people might consider short stories a literary equivalent of a snack. Others see them as guilt relievers - even when you have no time to read, you can always fork out ten minutes just before bed or when commuting to work. Especially when we're pressed for time, short stories prove to be infinitely more rewarding than a massive novel - instead of reading a page at a time and losing the plot every two or three days, we get to consume a bite-sized piece from the beginning to the end, which not only keeps our literary appetites satisfied for a while, but also comes with a particular sense of gratification that always accompanies the act of completing a task.

Many would argue that to create a good short story is a task much more demanding than to create a novel. A novel provides the writer with virtually infinite space - and luckily for authors with sentiment for grandiosity, long novels are back in. 

2015 turned out to be a year of monstrously long novels: it was a year of an uber-successful debut, almost 1000 page long City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (the rights were acquired for nearly $2 million, after a furious auction with 10 publishing houses bidding). Hanya Yanagihara's 736-page A Little Life was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Donna Tartt's 775-page The Goldfinch snatched the Pulitzer prize, and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries were the longest book to ever win the Man Booker Prize just two years earlier (and Catton herself became the youngest author to ever win the award).

Doesn't look like a very friendly climate for short fiction, does it?

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Short stories often don't get the recognition they deserve - the literary market is ruthless and publishing industry is much more favourable towards a nice, thick novel than a collection of short pieces. Short story collections don't receive as much publicity, usually have lower print runs and are not marketed as intensely as novels. Sadly, this makes it more difficult for the readers to find the real gems out there.

Having said that - short stories were not completely overlooked in 2015 - the National Book Award went to Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, the author best known for his Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master's Son. Johnson's collection actually beat such giants as Yanagihara's opus A Little Life and Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, named Amazon's 2015 Best Book of the Year. The jury hailed Johnson "one of the most talented writers of his generation" and a "virtuoso" - a well-deserved title for an author capable of handling minature fiction with the same mastery of narrative as he does with a novel.

Short stories require both skill and confidence: there is no space to fill in another chapter, no excuse for excess. There is very little room for mistakes, as they all remain in plain sight. The world and the characters must emerge complete and rich from just a few words or sentences, and the story needs to leave an impression without giving the feel of being rushed - the creative process reminds of chemistry rather than of just writing. The greatest example is the legendary "six-word novel", attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Of course, this example is rather extreme - it belongs to the genre of flash fiction, which takes short story to a whole new level. It's no secret that sometimes six words work better than six hundred pages.

2015 was not only a year of enormously long novel - it was also a good year for short fiction, although it may take a bit more digging to get through to it. Below you will find some interesting short fiction collections published in recent years - because good things come in small packages.

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52 MEN by Louise Wareham Leonard

This book contains 52 strongly autobiographical short stories. Some of them are just a few lines long, some are a couple of pages. They are all concise flashes of memories of relationships with 52 men one woman had in her life: some were sexual, some were romantic, and some both - or neither. 

The memories stretch from a boy from her school who once gave her a "love letter" (that turned out to be a dead fly hidden in a piece of folded paper), to an unrealistic romance taking place in fancy hotels, to a strange sexual encounter with a random young student - and many, many others inbetween. They are all piercingly personal and painfully honest - and also very relevant. The most interesting element of the book, however, is not learning about the men, but trying to create a portrait of the woman who remembers them - caleidoscopic and far from obvious, but above all, eerily relatable.

Seamus Heaney said of the author that she "risks much both stylistically and emotionally” - she certainly does, and it will make you want to revisit this little gem over and over again.


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Shaun Tan is a writer and an illustrator of his own books. TALES OF THE OUTER SUBURBIA are richly illustrated in his intimate and slightly old-school style: the pictures are quiet and slightly surreal, reminding of children's stories and things we dream of sometimes - filled with the hot, static air of the outer suburbia, where one can hear the car passing in the distance and the neigbour mowing his lawn. 

The stories are filled with the same pensive magic. They are stretched on thin, shiny strings of reality that vibrate quietly in hot afternoon air. They are extraordinary moments captured in most ordinary circumstances: a story of a tiny foreign exchange student living on a pantry shelf; or a story of a deep diver in an antique suit filled with water and covered in barnacles and algae, who quietly appears on the street one day with no explanation. These little stories are filled with eerie hum that makes it difficult to put the book down - as difficult as it is to wake up from a nap in the sun in the outer suburbia.

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Keret specialises in short stories - most of his writing are short story collections, except for his last book, and his first non-fiction, the autobiographical memoir The Seven Good Years. Etgar Keret is probably the best-known Israeli author, translated into dozens of languages. His stories are both tender and twisted - and he is not afraid to wrap the poetry of life in a healthy dose of dark humour or some uncompromising profanity. His characters are as vulnerable as they are cynical, and what happens to them is usually as ridiculous as it is heartbreaking. 

Keret's stories will punch you in the face and leave you uncertain and confused - there's rarely a definite resolution out there for the characters, who experience all kinds of uncanny events: from a boy getting a scrawny, lying angel for a friend to a man who discovers that every night, his beautiful fiancee turns into a filthy, hairy midget who likes to drink a bit too much. Keret likes to take the reality in both hands and wrench it - without ever straightening it properly afterwards.

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SLADE HOUSE by David Mitchell

SLADE HOUSE is a collection of chapters/short stories written in Mitchell's signature style. He has the ability to speak in a thousand voices and create infinite narratives and personalities with just a few words - a talent that remains unparalelled in contemporary literature. The book came to being on Twitter, the least likely medium for any literary endeavours.

The stories take place within reality created in Mitchell's last novel, Bone Clocks. It tells stories of people lured to and devoured by the title Slade House, while creating colorful - if slightly creepy in their honesty - characters. Each story has an eerily repetitive structure: we follow the characters searching for the Slade House, which proves tricky. When they do find it, they get trapped into a world weaved of their deepest dreams and insecurities - only to fall prey to its inhabitants.

It's as haunting and memorable as his novels, tangled with cross-references and narrative connections that are at the core of Mitchell's writing. It will leave you slightly unsettled - as if something slimy and cold just touched your ankle, and you never saw what it really was.

Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.