Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Studying the Short Story

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.

25 comments:

Stefanie said...

Count me in!

sfp said...

I'd love to discuss short stories with a group. I'm in.

Susan

LK said...

I'd love it! I am a short story aficiondado...I've got enough collections that I've plowed through (and need to hoe) to create a national monument.

I write 'em, I read 'em...and it's a nice break from Proust, which is my overarching, long-term Lit-uh-ah-ry project. (See my blog.)

Dorothy W. said...

Count me in too! I like that you plan on a story a month because I AM involved in a lot of groups, but can certainly handle that pace!

JohnM said...

Hi, Kate. I'm definitely interested, too!

Rinn said...

I'm new to lit-blogging but I'd love to be in the group if you'll have me. I have never been a big short story reader, (not for lack of trying or buying collections), but desperately want to write them well and understand them better.

Cam said...

Oh, yeah! I'm in. I was reading the current issue of Virginia Quarterly Review when it arrived a few weeks ago. It has a section devoted to Alice Munroe. Made me think about the short story collections I have that I haven't opened in years -- and all of the unread stories those collections contain.

Victoria said...

Why not! A short story can't be that hard to read and discuss once a month, right? But how are we going to organise it so the outlay isn't huge? I mean, lots of things should be available from libraries but it seems frivolous to buy a whole volume just for one story...

Kate S. said...

Victoria,

I've been digging around a bit and have found that many of the stories I had in mind are available online to read or download. We can make sure to stick to those and to others that are well enough known that, with a bit of forewarning, they should be easy to get in a library.

Danielle said...

Count me in too. I took a short story class in college, but I rarely read short stories now. The last ones I read were by Kate Chopin as a lead up to The Awakening--and I enjoyed them greatly. It is nice to read one author and see their development too. But one a month I could handle! By the way, I think my library got in the same Cheever book of short stories as you are reading--they look very good. He was quite prolific, wasn't he!

litlove said...

I'd like to be counted in too, please!

bloglily said...

This sounds like a lot of fun, Kate. And what a wise woman you are to set such a leisurely pace. I would do one story a month with pleasure. I'm in. xxoo, BL

AC said...

I'd love to join, what a great idea!

Amy C said...

Would love to participate. Are we starting with Chekhov?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely... Terrific idea, when do we start :-)

Melissa said...

Count me in--it's time for me to start reading more serious fiction anyway.

Agatha said...

This is a great idea. I'd love to join this group.

Ex-Libris said...

I enjoy reading short stories and would love to be in the group. Sharon

Lou W said...

Kate, I have embarked of late on a similar project (yours is better thought out) and I would like to participate in your SS group if it launches.
lou

Julie said...

Sign me up! Great idea!

missv said...

I'm interested in participating if it's not too late ...

Kirsten said...

Kate- I'm interested if you are accepting new members.

Cath Coultas said...

Hi
I am new to blogs and found this one more by accident than good fortune. I enjoy short stories but don't read enough of them and would like to join the group. Can I be really cheeky and suggest another author Cora Sandle, The silken thread is a collection of stories and sketches. The book may be out of print now but it is well worth trying to get hold of a copy.

Cath

audra said...

i would love to participate also if not too late. i've been reading alice munro short stories and now i'm addicted to the form.

Oakman said...

I am in with you and would love to explore the short story with you for a long time to come. Don't seem to have anyone else to work with at the moment. Looking forward to actually starting on the short story. Dougas Rosier