On the Power and Pleasure of Reading Short Stories

For some reason I’ve been craving short stories lately.

It’s really no wonder—I’ve been wrapped up in Alistair McLeod’s Island for the past few weeks. Without the time to sit down and read a novel start to finish, I’ve had to content myself with 20 pages here and there, whenever I have the chance to pick up a book for fun. I thought I’d miss the slow-burn of a novel, but surprisingly, I’ve found myself completely satisfied with the gulps of concentrated beauty afforded by McLeod’s short fiction, and for the moment anyway, I don’t seem to want anything else.


The Appeal of the Underdog

It’s something of an unpopular affliction, I think, this desire for short stories. Considering the popularity of blockbuster novels and the occasional oft-touted book series, story collections sometimes seem like the underappreciated red-headed step-child of CanLit. But the heart wants what it wants, and at certain times under certain conditions, mine wants nothing but short fiction.


Gotta love an underdog.

I sometimes wonder why I get the sudden urge to read short stories. It’s not like they’re constantly in the news, winning prizes or being stocked, face out, on booksellers’ shelves. Sure, there’s the occasional award for short stories that makes the news (the ReLit winners were just announced, by the way), but for the most part, it’s YA series that get the most attention on blogs, and the Important Literary Novels that draw attention in newspapers and magazines. Short story collections tend to be the underdogs, the dark horses that occasionally fight their way to prominence.

Who doesn’t like an underdog? My contrarian nature heartily approves.


Linked Narrative: An Intellectual Treat

Oh what a tangled web … at least, that’s the way I like my short fiction!

For myself, I think it goes beyond the gratification of my nonconformist leanings. I have a particular fondness for short stories that link together. Paul Glennon’s The Dodecahedron comes to mind—short stories with wildly different styles and characters and themes, but which in some way, however small, reference the other stories in the collection. It’s a brilliant device—like a little treat for careful reading—and I wish I came across it more in my reading. Then there’s the short story cycle, a famous example being Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey, but also Margaret Gracie’s Plastic, coming soon, and even the last section of Barbara Sibbald’s The Museum of Possibilities. These display all the luxury of the novel form, but the flexibility of style and point of view of a short story. It’s like a novel for busy people—something you can pick up and put down without losing your place too much.


A Demanding Craft

But what is most appealing to me is the demanding nature of the form. I like the brevity—the way it forces the author to communicate concisely, to plot meticulously, to include only that which is essential. I like the fact that every sentence must have a purpose, that every character must forward the plot, and that every interaction is meaningful and carefully considered. To do all that, to do so with style and wit and an eye to literary device, is to me akin to genius.

So if you’re in a rut of novel reading and looking for some short stories, I humbly suggest acquiring a collection post-haste. It’s time we remembered the technical mastery and stylistic prowess of short story writers!


So is it just me? Are there others among us who yearn for a nice, meaty short story collection to sink their teeth into? I’m always open to hearing some good recommendations!

Thanks for visiting,

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.