Novel-Tea: the rise of the short story
I have never been a big fan of short stories, but in the past few months, I have fallen for the vice that is the short story collection. For most of my life, I have been averse to short story collections, simply because I am a fan of character development. I prefer character-driven books to plot-driven books, and I could happily read a 10-book series about the same well-written character without getting bored. For this reason, I did not think that short stories were for me. But a few of my recent reads have converted me to the dark side, and I found myself wondering: Why now?
It all began one day over Fall Break as I perused my local independent bookstore. I was browsing through the fiction section and picked up a slim volume called "A House Is a Body" by Shruti Swamy. I thought the title was interesting so I brought it home with me and as I explored its pages, I was pleasantly surprised. Swamy writes about life in an incredibly bright and observant way, painting each character’s experience as completely unique. Swamy impressed me with her ability to make simple actions like drinking a beverage or laughing seem incredibly complex and beautiful. The stories ranged from mystically whimsical to grief-stricken to ironic to brimming with tension, and yet they all created a cohesive message about human nature and the way we find meaning. All that aside, I think it is high enough praise to say that this book made me want to read more short stories.
My next venture into the short story world came in the form of "The White Album" by Joan Didion. Didion is a favorite author of mine. I had previously picked up her novel "Play It As It Lays," which I casually enjoyed but did not connect to at the same level as "The White Album." This book enthralled me. It is a collection of Didion’s essays written throughout the 1960s about topics like the Hoover Dam, serial killers, and presidential architecture—to name a few. Didion’s writing has been highly praised by many, and its part-journalistic, part-memoir, sizzling yet tender tone drew me in just as much as anyone else. In my mind, this book is a testament to Didion’s power as a writer. She successfully makes me feel like I have lived through the 1960s and have knowledge of the intricate social movements and cultural attitudes of the time. This was a highly successful book that truly made me fall in love even more with not only Didion herself, but the short story format as a whole.
Another modern collection for those who are not history-inclined is "Milk Blood Heat" by Dantiel W. Moniz. This sometimes disturbing, sometimes heartwarming, always intriguing book is set in Florida, and centers a variety of characters in different generations and economic situations. The main characters include middle school girls making a blood pact, a woman who lost her baby, a husband frustrated with his dying wife, and a mother wanting to control her wild teenage daughter, all with deeper and more meaningful stories than the last. This book is so many things at once — it is dark, it is beautiful, it is funny, and it is real. Also, Moniz writes some of the most simultaneously stomach-churning and heart-wrenching prose I have ever read. Every sentence is a new joy in this collection, making me want to simultaneously read slowly while also consuming all of it all at once. Writing this a few weeks after I finished this book, I can say that I am still thinking about specific sentences and scenes. I already know it will be one of my favorites of the year, and possibly one of my favorites of all time.
Part of my journey to come to love short story collections was reading the right books at the right time, but I think there may have been something else at play. On one hand, the books are perfect for a short attention span, or if I am simply not feeling like I have the time to commit to a long, complex novel with lots of world-building. They are also perfect for the reader who (like many of us) goes for long periods of time without reading, since it’s not necessary to remember all the characters' names and everything about them.
But more than anything, I think short stories have appealed to me recently because they are simply and uniquely human. They follow the model of connection that mirrors reality — we can never know someone’s entire life story, and it is often hard to stay connected with people for our entire lives. This means that we are constantly seeing snippets of each other, just like in these books. I also read books by extremely talented authors, which helped me to transition towards the genre after being drawn in by their writing styles. So this goes out as a message to all of you short story haters: if you are resistant, give one of these books a try. You will not be disappointed, and you may just find something new to love.