Diving in at the shallow end

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The hectic schedule of an Oxford student sometimes just doesn’t leave time for reading a novel.  If I dare try, I usually only get a few chapters in before I give up, frustrated with not being able to remember where I left off the week before reading each night before bed having become a fanciful resolution. That’s where the short story comes in: you can pick one up and complete it within minutes, gaining the satisfaction that comes from escaping fleetingly into another world, without the stamina, or sleep-deprivation, often required from a novel.

My all-time favourite is Alice Munro, the Canadian writer who has in recent years has become the Mary Poppins of short stories judges having described her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, as ‘practically perfect’. She has the ability to sketch out whole lives in just a few pages, not shying away from dark, dramatic events but ensuring through unsentimental prose and rich detail that it is her characters that drive the plot. Her stories are nearly all set in rural Ontario, but I feel I could read them again and again before I got bored.

If I did, though, I wouldn’t mind something by Helen Simpson, who has most recently published a collection called In-Flight Entertainment, but who I first got into after reading Lentils and Lilies: a story of an A level student on her way to a job interview at a garden centre who tries and fails to help a mother retrieve a lentil from her child’s nose. I’m not sure there’s a ‘point’ to her quirky tales of domestic life, but they’re so entertaining that I don’t really care.

For something a bit more serious, I might read Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Unaccustomed Earth sensitively depicts characters caught between their American lifestyle and Bengali heritage. Or Petina Gappah, whose widely acclaimed An Elegy for Easterly paints a refreshingly human picture of the hardship, hypocrisy and humour of life in Zimbabwe.

And if I’m feeling too lazy for conventional prose, I love Ali Smith’s experimental touch, demonstrated most recently in The First 
Person and Other Stories. I probably wouldn’t quite go as far as one of her characters and call the short story a ‘nimble goddess’ to the ‘flabby old whore’ of the novel, but she does show that short doesn’t have to mean boring.

There is a certain stigma attached to the short story. As Alice Munro puts it in one of her stories:  it can seem ‘to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside’. But she, and countless other writers prove this wrong: their short stories do not imply they could not have written a novel; they are not unsatisfying fragments but literary gems.

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