James Holden: The satisfaction of short stories

IrishI’ve just finished reading The Granta Book Of The Irish Short Story. It’s a cracking anthology, and has introduced me to some writers that I want to investigate further – especially Maeve Brennan (her entry is An Attack of Hunger, about a mother whose son leaves home to become a priest and which turns out to be built on shifting sands) and Bernard Maclaverty (his Language, Truth and Lockjaw had me sniggering out loud – I can’t say why without giving too much away).

The book was compiled by the novelist Anne Enright, whose introduction was an interesting look at whether you can define a nation through their short stories, whether Irish short stories are fundamentally about loneliness, and why the Irish have a reputation as natural masters of the short story form. For me, the most interesting part of her introduction was this section:

I am not sure whether the novel is written for our convenience, but it is probably written for our satisfaction. That is what readers complain about with short stories, that they are not “satisfying”. They are the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers’ taste. Short stories are, however, satisfying to write, because they are such achieved things. They become themselves even as you write them: they end once they have attained their natural state.

I’ve always been the first to hold my hands up and say that until I started writing short stories, I didn’t really read them as a matter of course. If I preferred novels, it wasn’t necessarily because I found them so satisfying, but because their dominance as a form of literature meant it never really occurred to me to seek short stories out instead.

Since taking up creative writing, I have made a conscious choice to concentrate on short stories, and not attempt a novel. Part of this is a matter of convenience – I don’t consider that I have the time, or energy, to embark on such an ambitious undertaking. But I also don’t have an idea to carry through for a novel, and so am quite happy pursuing my ideas and characters through the short story form. Ultimately, I guess I’m endorsing Enright’s position – that no matter hard they are to write, it is satisfying to do so. But what about Enright’s second point, that they’re not satisfying to read? If this is the case, then where does this leave the short story writer looking for an outlet for their work?

Given the ambition of short stories – as shown in this collection, which covers diverse themes such as the legacy of the Holocaust, child abuse and “new money”, it’s difficult to ascribe any lack of satisfaction down to a paucity of ambition on the part of the short story. Ultimately this leaves me with a lack of insight of why – if it is indeed the case – short stories are less satisfying to read rather than write, other than the fact that marketing of longer books is much better organised, and that readers prefer to stick with characters longer than a ten or twenty page piece. My hunch is that resistance to short stories – if there is one – is because the novel has become such a cultural norm.

 If you’re interested, you can find her introduction on-line here. And the book is definitely worth checking out.


About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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One Response to James Holden: The satisfaction of short stories

  1. mat says:

    It was The Dubliners by Joyce that first made me interested in short stories… Not read it? Read it.

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