Why read short stories?

Posted on 21st May 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
Because they're fantastic. A few of our favourite recent and classic collections.

There is no such thing as the perfect novel. There are many great novels but a 100,000 word book will have moments which detract from the rest. A character you don't like or a section you find yourself speeding through. Maybe even entire plots which take you away from the parts of a book you love. There’s always going to be something.

There is, however, the perfect short story.

In short stories, there's no room for that extra bit of detail or unnecessary flourish. It’s one of the few forms of writing where it’s genuinely the case that every single word counts. You have one idea and a few thousand words before you're done. Novels can disguise their weaker points behind other bits of brilliance, a short story has nowhere to hide its faults.

In longer works, lone ideas can get lost and forgotten. With short stories, there is nothing but that individual idea. If it isn’t strong enough then everything else falls down. You could have the best character in the world but if there’s nothing to the plot then, well, it all falls down.  

It’s always a mystery to me why they aren’t more popular. They’re perfect for the morning commute or lunch break and in this terrifying new world of ‘snackable content’*, it only seems natural that the short story should be once again coming to the fore. Below, we list some of the bigger collections recently published (and a few of our other favourites for good measure).


The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel


'Ah, an email from Hilary,' thought Hilary Mantel's publicist. 'I wonder if she's decided on a title for the new book.' The email opens innocently enough, the sort of office talk between friendly colleagues. Asking briefly how the other is, wishing them well, you know the sort. The publicist continues to read. Yes, HIlary has decided on a title for the book. Always a privileged moment to hear the author's early title thoughts. She reads ahead. She stops. She reads it again. Thousands of images flash across her mind, most of them headlines from the more conservative newspapers. 'Still,' the publicist thinks. 'There's no denying it's a good title.'

Now, I'm not saying the above happened, but it's true. There's no denying it's a good title. As is often the case, it also helps that it's a great collection. A whole range of stories ranging from the mundanity of surburban life to 80s politics or the dangers of letting an unknown person into your flat just to use your phone. Exactly the quality you'd expect from the author of the phenomenal Wolf Hall trilogy, really.


The Country of the Blind and Other Stories by H.G. Wells 

In my opinion, a near perfect book. There's a story about a man who as a child finds a secret door that leads to a wondrous garden but, upon returning home, the door vanishes. He sees the door a few times throughout his life but is mostly too busy with grown-up activities like work to stop and pass through. It's heartbreaking. The title story is absolutely wonderful as well. And I will go through my entire life being silently terrified of the possibility of embodied floating heads always following me around. Nearly every story is fantastic. 


Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman fans rejoiced when he announced he was making a return to short stories. His previous collections have been fantastic and Trigger Warning is no different. His imagination is still in full flow and Gaiman's skill lies, as ever, in finding the scary side in the psychological rather than the physical.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Raymond Carver

There's an unwritten rule that any short story list ever published has to feature Raymond Carver. There's often a good reason for unwritten rules and this is one I'm more than happy to go along with. Carver's minimialist approach gives you the barest of bones through which he creates complicated characters in often difficult situations. No strange stories of monsters and danger, but real and believable people making the best out of difficult situations. An absolute master of the form. 

Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

The best writer to never win the Novel Prize for Literature. His imagination was second to none and subtly funny in ways you don't expect. The Library of Babel has had a huge affect on how I see bookshops and Pierre Menard is, as far as I'm concerned, the true author of Don Quixote. One of those rare literary geniuses who deserve every ounce of their reputation. He's one of those authors who many people have always been meaning to readbut never quite get around to. He is very much worth your time.

The Complete Short Stories Volume 1 by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard may be the best of the early science-fiction short story writers. Astronauts discovering ancient monuments on other planets, strange quirks of physics that see people trapped in increasingly bizarre time loops and the wonderfully surreal land of Vermilion Sands full of singing plants and sentient houses. The latter stories in particular are something special tap into a strange and claustrophic vein of America that only Ballard's brain could reach. This collection is huge and, once you've finished, you can move straight on to the equally strong Volume 2.


With Stephen King's The Bazaar of Bad Dreams yet to come, it really is a good time to be a fan of short stories. Remember, a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters for a thousand years would never manage to write The Kingdom of the Blind by HG Wells or Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (or they would but they’d write ‘cockroach’ instead of ‘insect’).

*the only correct response to this term is an involuntary shudder


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