The Joy of a Short Story
Blog · Posted November 8, 2023
Vivian, ex-Mainstreet Bookseller, explores the beauty of short stories and novellas.
Waking at six but unwilling to get out of bed, I reached for a book. This one, at under 100 pages, would be called a novella. In fact, 74 pages of tightly written, well thought out, and in this case devastating prose.
My thought process went: I’ll just read a few pages then I’ll get up; but I can’t leave Cheri here; there are no chapter breaks so I’ll read a little more; there’s a gap between paragraphs in five pages, I’ll stop there; actually, there are only twenty pages left, it would be rude to leave the family now.
Those pages fly past in a blur, the conclusion more intense and unsettling than I had expected.
I rise and shower, the trajectory of my day already affected by this little masterpiece.
There has been a fashion over the years for increasingly lengthy novels, 700/800-page tomes. Their serious intent foreshadowed by their heft. I have read my share and have, in all but a few cases, been struck that one or two hundred pages could have been removed without too much disruption to the story.
More recently a swathe of much shorter books have come to the fore. Written by novelists who have edited out the superfluous from their own texts, and left us little gems. Derisively called novellas, these short novels can pack a huge punch. Claire Keenans’ Small Things Like These was shortlisted for the 2022 booker Prize and won the Orwell Prize for political fiction, all 128 pages of it. Claire herself said in The Guardian (Sat 2nd September)
“I do think no story has ever been read properly unless it’s read twice”.
With a shorter novel this is an easier undertaking and rewards with a greater insight into the story.
Shorter books are, of course, not new, and some are now deemed classics. The Man who Planted Trees by Jean Giono has remained in print since it was written around 1953, while The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which charts a womans’ post-partum descent into near madness, was first published in 1892.
I think a particular strength of the shorter story is its sustained intensity. There are few lengthy novels without periods where the text rambles a little. Sometimes this is a welcome break from intensity and allows further exploration of a character or situation. Within a novella however, every sentence must earn its place. Not all are successful, but those that are will be replayed time and again in the readers’ head.
Two of the first shorter books I encountered were both debuts and all the more remarkable beacause of that. Rain by New Zealand born Kirsty Gunn, is a story of childhood freedom, and ultimately, loss. It deceives with its simplicity – a family holidaying at an undisclosed lakeside – then stuns with emotional intensity. Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice follows a similar direction. A brother and sister growing up in an outwardly ordinary family forced to deal with an extraordinary situation. Gunns’ The Boy and the Sea is also worth seeking out.
Both Claire Keenan and Max Porter are utterly masterful short-form writers. I read Porter’s debut Grief is the Thing with Feathers on a train, ordinarily the perfect place to read a hundred pages undisturbed. But perhaps not when the story concerns the death of a young mother and her husband’s anthropomorphising of Ted Hughes Crow in order to process his grief. I was left bereft. Both his follow up Lanny and the more recent Shy demand second readings. They are all complex books but due to their length, very manageable. If you can I would recommend hearing them read by the author, a totally immersive experience.
For Claire Keenan, start with the aforementioned Small Things Like These, take in Antarctica (excellent short stories) and come full circle to her latest So Late in the Day still on my TBR pile.
Both Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Patrick Süskinds’ The Story of Mr Sommer allow a small taste of internationally renowned authors. Although for a lighter read I would opt for the Süskind, sweetly illustrated by the cartoonist Sempé, telling the story of a young boy navigating lifes various challenges.
Beyond these suggestions check out the Small but Mighty list on Bookshop.org. Then next time you have a spare moment you can pick up a little book and drop into (and out of) another world.
And the book I read this morning? Cheri by Jo Ann Beard. I may just have to read it again.
(Vivian’s drawing of her short story stack)