It was with great pleasure that I sat down and read Catherine Brady’s newest collection of short stories (read my review). I am a lover of short stories, but I know that many readers are not…and it made me wonder, is there a way to approach this narrative form to improve one’s enjoyment of it? What exactly should we, as readers, be looking for when we sit down to read a short story collection? I asked Catherine this question and she agreed to write a guest post on the topic. Enjoy!
Guest Post: Catherine Brady
There’s nothing like curling up with a good novel—literally crawling into bed or putting your feet up on the sofa to immerse yourself vicariously in someone else’s imagined life. Whatever crisis the main character must confront, you’re with them for the long haul, willing them to make the right choice, hoping they’ll be granted the forgiveness of others or the grace of finding real purpose in their lives.
By these lights, reading a short story is something of a cheat: if the story’s any good, you invest equally in the predicament of the main character, but you get just a glimpse of her life, and the full consequences for her choices don’t happen on the page, only in your imagination—and only if you have invested enough to keep thinking about the fallout that continues after you have read the last page. The experience of reading a novel is something like a long courtship, in which you come to know all the habits and idiosyncrasies of another person. Reading a short story is more like being trapped in an elevator with a stranger during an earthquake: in just a few hours of crisis, you get to know them deeply, even if you don’t know where they grew up, what they do for a living, or how many children they have. And this is in so many ways the prime virtue of stories: their intensity of focus. A novel just can’t match that experience of a sudden glimpse into the essential nature of another person. And the fact that we often keep imagining consequences after the last paragraph suggests that stories resonate in us in a different way than novels do. They ask us to imagine more, not less. Anyone who has read the stories of Alice Munro knows that what she can pack into a story would take another writer an entire novel to explore: there are deep satisfactions to coming to know a character so well and so deeply after a relatively short number of pages.
I know that book groups are often reluctant to tackle short story collections. Last fall (2008), I was at BookGroup Expo in San Jose as a member of a panel on reading the short form in book groups, and a member of the audience said that when her book group read story collections, they would get frustrated because they didn’t have time to discuss all the stories. This, of course, is only more evidence of how much stories can generate for readers: not just feeling for characters but also complicated parsing of what the events of their lives might mean for us. But it’s also a neat articulation of a logistical problem. I would want to encourage book groups (and solo readers) to approach story collections in a very different way than they do novels. It can easily take two or three hours just to hash over the possibilities thrown up by three or four stories in a book, and if you skimped on this and tried to touch on every story, you’d probably feel disappointed with the discussion. It’s far more satisfying to single out three or four key stories—and usually the first and last stories in a book make a good choice—and first just discuss each on its own terms. Looking so closely at some of the stories often illuminates how the writer works and what themes are central to the book, so that we begin to get a sense of the whole even if we haven’t discussed each story, in order, as if the book were a chopped-up version of a novel. After looking closely at just a few stories, you usually can have a more general but more satisfying conversation about what a story collection might mean as a whole, which is different than what a novel means as a whole. Usually story collections are organized as variations on a theme, and we don’t have a single plot to help us see how this develops but have to think about comparing one story to another, one character’s predicament to another’s, in order to begin to get a sense of what concerns the writer and what we have discovered from the stories. If we might say of a novel that its plot is about finding hope after a tragedy, of a story collection we might have to say instead, well, the “plot” is about finding hope after a tragedy, but . . . but . . . but, with the ellipses standing for the qualifications supplied by one story after another. The whole is more than the sum of its parts if the story collection has been thoughtfully arranged.
I will try to give a quick example of what I mean. In my new story collection, The Mechanics of Falling, the focus is on moments when people’s seemingly stable lives suddenly shift, sometimes sending them into free fall. The main character in the first story, “Looking for a Female Tenet,” sees this coming and shrinks from it. BUT the main character in “Last of the True Believers” is yearning for a dramatic fall and sees in it something that will be of lasting value. BUT the main character of another story, “The Dazzling World,” almost religiously resists the idea of hungering for a dramatic change, as if your life course can be determined by just a single event. Throughout all the stories, there are images of boxes and containers, and whether the things that fix us in place in our lives are traps or consolation is up to the reader to decide. I can tell you that I don’t know the answer. I’m just not sure. And maybe that’s why I write story collections: by design they allow you to leave the answers up in the air.
Read another guest post by Catherine Brady at 1st Books
The Rumpus interview with Catherine Brady
To learn more about Catherine Brady and her work, visit the author’s website.
Buy The Mechanics of Falling: