I have a confession to make: I’m afraid of short stories. Afraid of writing them, which isn’t that weird I suppose, but also of reading them, which is probably quite.
I once had the misfortune of visiting a modern art museum in Maastricht where I was subjected to – among other, save us all, installations – a table covered in newspapers and magazines that had been scribbled on with pen and ripped to shreds. My boss at the time, who had arranged the trip, fancied herself as a bit of an art critic, and spent ages gazing at it before concluding that it was a searing indictment of modern media’s vapidity. All I concluded was that (a) someone had covered a table in newspapers and magazines that had been scribbled on with pen and then ripped to shreds and (b) I was in the wrong job if this is what passed for valuable modern “art.” And that’s how I felt about the vast majority of short stories I encountered. To me, they were the too-clever-to-actually-be-clever modern art installations of the writing world, and I just wanted a good old watercolor, sculpture or oil painting.
(For the most part. One collection I did enjoy was The Burned Children of America starring the late great David Foster Wallace, but that was many years ago now.)
Then I heard about Stories, a new collection edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, and featuring original tales by a glittering and diverse array of authors including Roddy Doyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Joanne Harris, Jodi Picoult, Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Carroll and Jeffery Deaver. Encouraged by the presence of popular fiction writers – who, I hoped, would never shred some Marie Claires, throw them on a picnic table and call them art – I thought I might give it a go, and I’d no choice but to when I got sent a copy for review and as part of the deal, agreed to contribute to a short story of my own.
Collecting the stories for Stories, Gaiman and Sarrantonio only had one requirement: the writer would have to answer the question, “And then what happened?” It didn’t matter if what happened was a murder or a romance or the sudden appearance of a black hole in the space/time continuum circa 2032, only that something did. Genre became irrelevant, although a common element in all of them is the fantastical.
And I really enjoyed this book. There’s nearly thirty stories in it so just to pick out a few favorites: Jodi Picoult’s story of the different ways a couple deal with the death of their child was just beautiful; I really liked how Joanne Harris’ had mythological gods stomping around modern day New York; and Roddy Doyle’s vampire-esque protagonist had me glad I hadn’t just eaten my dinner.
Yes, there were a few in there that I felt were being a bit too clever for their own good, sure, but they were in the minority. I also discovered the real joy of short stories: you can read a whole one just before bed, or in the morning before you start writing, or in the half hour you have to kill before Mad Men. With an enormous To Read pile eyeing me from my nightstand, it was nice to be able to dip in and out of something without feeling guilty that I didn’t have the necessary free hours to read the whole thing.
So now I’m less afraid of short stories.
Click here to buy Stories from Amazon.co.uk. Thanks to Headline for my copy.