In a recent post, Stefanie of So Many Books wrote of her frustration with Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story and concluded, along with a number of those who commented on her post, that the only way to gain a full understanding of the form is to read a lot of short stories. I enjoy reading articles and books about the form, but I agree that the most important thing is to read the stories themselves. The critical literature may enhance our reading of stories but it certainly doesn’t serve as a substitute for them nor, I’m sure, would any of us want it to.
Despite this conviction, it occurred to me that I have never attempted to systematically study the work of the acknowledged masters of the short story. I’ve read a lot of short stories—contemporary stories but also stories by the likes of Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Ernest Hemingway. My bookshelves groan with the collected stories of various distinguished writers. I’ve dipped in and out of these weighty tomes, but I’ve never read them straight through, cover to cover, so as to get a proper sense of each writer’s chronological development or of their entire oeuvre.
Stefanie’s post has galvanized me to embark on this sort of systematic study. I’ve pulled down off the shelves The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Fifty Stories by Kay Boyle, and Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver. I went out yesterday and bought The Stories of John Cheever and The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel from my favourite indie bookstore, and I ordered Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield's Selected Stories, and The Collected Short Stories by Jean Rhys online.
I plan to work my way through each of these books one at a time at a rate of at least one story per day. One at a time so as not to mix up the authors with each other, and one per day because any short story worth reading is worth mulling over for a while before moving on to the next one. I’ve begun with Jean Stafford, though I did cheat yesterday and read the first story in the John Cheever collection over lunch right after I bought the book. I’d never read any Cheever before and just that one story (“Goodbye, My Brother”) bowled me over. Note that the collection is arranged chronologically, so “Goodbye, My Brother” is one of his earliest stories, one of the ones that he describes in the preface as immature and at times embarrassing. My head may explode when I get to those that he considers mature and accomplished. How did I get to this stage in my life as a devoted reader and writer of short stories without having read Cheever? (Thanks, by the way, to Patricia Storms whose recent post at BookLust on Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” and the movie version thereof prompted me to put this collection on my must buy list!)
It occurs to me as I embark on this grand plan that it would be wonderful to participate in a short story discussion group as an adjunct to my solitary study. I have in mind a reading group along the lines of the Slaves of Golconda, dedicated to reading and discussing one short story per month. (This may not seem terribly ambitious, but I’m aware that there are a number of litblog reading groups going on at the moment, and that many of you are participating in more than one of them.) At that pace, we could work our way through a series of classic stories in leisurely fashion: Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog,” James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Jean Rhys’s “Let Them Call it Jazz,” Jean Stafford’s “In the Zoo,” Frank O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex,” John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” plus stories by Isaac Babel, Katherine Mansfield, Kay Boyle, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and others.
If you would like to participate in such a venture let me know via e-mail or the comments section, and I will endeavor to get something organized.