Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Short Stories

Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, has occupied much of my reading time over the past few days. I must admit that I am quite pleasantly surprised by her writing. This book had two strikes against it before I even picked it up: 1) it was written by Flannery O’Connor--reason for my (unjustified) distaste explained in prior posts; 2) it is a collection of short stories. I am one who likes long, slow novels—The Forsyte Saga, Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina, In Search of Lost Time, you get the picture. When I fall in love with a writer, I want as much as I can get. I want to go on reading for days, even weeks on end. I don’t want the experience to end, at least not any time soon.

This is, in fact, rather ironic because the majority of my graduate work (including the thesis that I am currently writing) has focused on the short genre in medieval and Renaissance France, collections much like Boccaccio’s Decameron. Obviously, I don’t like to mix work and pleasure reading. I have surprised myself, however, by my recent reading choices. In fact, a delightful new pattern began to emerge a couple of months ago when I picked up Alice Munro’s Runaway. She has an ability to pack an enormous amount of character development into only a few pages. Then I discovered that Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, marketed as a novel, is actually made up of three interlinking short stories. And this leads us to Flannery O’Connor. She reminds me of Alice Munro, though the latter delves much deeper into the psychology of her characters. The stories in Munro’s collection are held together by the common theme of the book’s title. The author is preoccupied by the conflicts, whether internal or external, that cause her characters to miss out on something, to run away from what it seems that they want or need. So far (and I’m not quite halfway through), the unity of O’Connor’s collection also seems to lie in its title (logical, right?) and she sets the mood for the entire book in the first, eponymous story. For the women in O’Connor’s stories, it does appear that a good man is hard to find, but I’ll hold off on discussing this book for now.

Simon over at Stuck in a Book had this to say yesterday about short stories:
in general, their brevity and structure mean a short story can hang on a single moment, issue or point - a novel would be quite weak if it tried the same thing - so it's much more sink or swim. When they succeed, like Mansfield's 'The Garden Party', for instance, they really succeed. When they fail... well, at least you haven't spent weeks to be disappointed.
Actually, the brevity and singular focus that used to leave me unsatisfied is precisely the quality that I now am beginning to appreciate. I may even join that Seconds Challenge that I have seen popping up on books blogs lately in order to get a second helping of these writers' stories. Otherwise, I'm likely to return to my old habit of putting them off and that would be a shame.


StuckInABook said...

Hiya Kelly - always exciting when I get quoted somewhere! I didn't realise Michael Cunningham had written something akin to short stories - I've only read The Hours, but I loved it.
And funny you should mention Boccaccio. I've just finished an English degree, and don't speak any other languages - at one point, I gave a presentation on the influences of Boccaccio on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde... without having read any of either!

Kelly said...

Why Simon, it sounds like you're a natural academic. Feigning knowledge is standard practice, didn't ya know?!

Bookgirl said...

Hi Kelly - Thanks for stopping over at my blog. It's so nice to "meet" another bookworm. I'm taking note of some of the short story collections you mentioned as I admit I tend to not pick those up. I'm much more of a novel reader but I would like to read some Munro.

Kelly said...

Iliana, I'm more of a novel reader, too. As far as short stories go, I found Munro pretty compelling. She's worth a try!