To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

Let me start with some slim collections, with pieces you can count on one hand. A selection of four of Patricia Highsmith‘s stories are included in Sour Tales for Sweethearts and though this wasn’t her own choice of title it exactly captures the nature of the quartet. Then there’s Jean Rhys‘ quartet Till September Petronella (the four also selected by the publisher) which, with their semi-autobiographical nature, capture the melancholy that dogged Rhys much of her life.

A L Kennedy‘s bulkier collection Now that You’re Back conveys Rhys’ melancholy with the sinister streak of Highsmith in clever twisted pen portraits, thus maintaining an overall tone. Tove Jansson‘s stories are more like artworks in a gallery, occasionally with a chill Scandinavian wind but also moments of warmth, as in Art in Nature (again, the publisher’s choice of title). A Winter Book likewise is neither Jansson’s selection or title but is designed as a kind of counterpart to the author’s exquisite The Summer Book but with a sense of leave-taking.

A recent volume of the late Jan Mark‘s short children’s fiction is named after one of the stories The One That Got Away — but if there are any autobiographical elements they are successfully disguised. A varied selection goes from realism to horror, humour to fantasy and back again, but with each piece equally arresting. With this collection of thirty items (offered up in alphabetical order of titles) it’s neither possible nor desirable to mention each one, leaving the reviewer to highlight exemplars.

I seem to have neglected male authors in this discussion so here is a trio, ordered alphabetically. Ray Bradbury‘s Summer Morning, Summer Night is set in a fictional town in the American Midwest and, unlike his more fantastical and speculative novels, is focused on small-town gossip, eccentric individuals, and what goes on behind closed doors, and so kicks against my fourth caveat. We’ll Always Have Paris is a little more wide-ranging but retains his characteristic focus on people.

We briefly move to the other side of the Atlantic, to Czarist Russia: thirty-five of Anton Chekhov‘s early tales are bundled together in Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88 illustrating his ability to capture human nature in arresting observational studies from his native Russia. What binds them? Perhaps their period feel, set in a Tsarist Russia a scant decade or so before the 20th century changed many things forever.

Finally, I return to the US with a volume of F Scott Fitzgerald‘s pieces published as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories. Again the stories are bittersweet, occasionally as sour as Highsmith’s own tales, and are — like Chekhov’s pieces — a window on a particular period.

This bittersweet approach seems to be a genre favourite by authors appearing keen to establish the serious nature of their writing: dark, cynical, judgmental, tragic — whether it’s a sting in the tail that determines the composition or a steady descent to a less than happy conclusion reflecting the author’s own experiences I leave biographers to determine, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of such an approach in keeping the reader engaged.

But of course not all short stories follow this patterning, neither in the selections I’ve featured here nor in the more fantastical ones I intend to consider next. Some of these are more uneven in their tone and quality, as we shall see.

Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

As you can gather, I’ve joined the apocryphal Friends of the Library of Brief Narratives.

Subscription is free, and one may come and go as one pleases.

Membership is dependent on the sharing of thoughts and of course some familiarity with the library’s focus on short stories, either individually or collectively. Sign up below:

14 thoughts on “To cut a tale short

  1. You have expressed exactly why I leave reviewing short story collections to the experts.

    Apart from anything else, I find that if I dip into a collection, unless I take notes, (which is not what you do when you’re reading for pleasure), I’ve forgotten too much of the collection by the time I finish the book. And if I read it continuously, all the stories merge into each other.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you articulate my own dilemma exactly: even though I often take notes (I do enjoy doing that, actually) each collection or selection has to be approached differently, but I often don’t know which approach until I’m well into them, by which time it’s too late! Still, it’s usually worth the effort. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Having read those two Bradbury collections I have to say I agree with you on his expertise, while in her short stories Highsmith lost none of the bite she showed either in the first Ripley novel or in The Two Faces of January, the only other of her novels I’ve read so far.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post! I do struggle with writing about short story collections – it’s hard to know the angle to take and for a long collection I often feel I’d bore any readers to death talking about each individual story. But I do love to read them, and what you say about Tove Jansson’s stories being like artworks is spot on! (I love them, though!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you liked it, Karen, and you’re right, it’s hard as a general rule to decide what angle to take — I now tend to see what overall theme, if any, is present (it’s not always explicit) and take my cue from that. I suppose it comes from trying to find an apt post title, as I never signal “a review of…” except for Twitter posts.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I didn’t always love short stories; I feel like I had to learn to admire them, first, and understand that they weren’t trying to be novels but only fell short. LOL Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor: so many fine practitioners of the form!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #146 – Book Jotter

  5. Friends of The Library of Brief Narratives sounds like my kind of place, and just as friendly sounding as I’d expect it to be.

    What an interesting cornucopia you’ve presented. I’ve dropped in on Chekov, so far. Lovely post, Chris. You’ve reminded me I spend too much time talking about him, instead of reading him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cath. The only one of the Chekhov stories I remember reading before was the well-known ‘The Kiss’, but a couple of others about peasant life felt familiar, perhaps because they captured those Russian fables I read as a kid. More from my mini library of Brief Narratives to come!

      Liked by 1 person

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