Fear of short stories

I’ve never really felt comfortable around short stories. For one thing, I struggle to write them, and always feel a bit out of proportion whenever I make the attempt – too obvious, too obscure, too packed with stuff, not enough depth. My failings aside, I’m also wary about reading them. In fact, I never did read many at all until in grad school, when I was forced to. Short stories seem to me feel full of treacherous melancholies, all the more dangerous for so often being quiet. And since in my daily life I struggle to remain chipper, it’s rare that I’m in the mood to open myself to their insinuating, perfectly wrought sadness.

All of which is to say I’ve been surprised to find myself really enjoying some short stories lately. I think I’m a full-blown fan, for instance, of Tessa Hadley, who’s often in the New Yorker. Just the other week, she had a story, “Honor,” that has all the elements that usually put me in a funk for days (a dead child, emotionally cramped relationships, the past). But it’s so beautifully done, I found myself swept along.

Here is the narrator, a woman looking back on something that happened when she was a girl:

“I was dreading arriving home in the middle of a big fuss. I couldn’t bear crises: the huddles of women, their lowered voices, smoldering glances, shutting the children out and yet looping them in – tantalizing them – to the dark, sticky center.”

How I love that. Everything she writes is so beautifully simple and exact. Here is another:

“People had mixed feelings about men’s violence against their families in those days: it was disgusting, but it was also, confusedly, part of the suffering essence of maleness, like the smell of tobacco and beard growth.”

I’ve always thought my fear of short stories spoke to a kind of literary arrested development. Like the child in the quote above who couldn’t bear crises, I often feel that I can’t bear fiction that is too real, for I’m too afraid of encountering true sadness and grief. In books, the length helps, and they’re less pointed.

Actually, it was a recent attempt to write a story again that led me to my current spate of short story reading. In the course of this, through posts on Short Story Craft and Earth Goat I ended up loving two other short stories with dead children in them. I’m talking about Alice Munro’s “Dimension” and William Trevor’s “The Dressmaker’s Child,” each of which appeared in the New Yorker. They are each so artfully artless, each about the aftermath of tragedy, each about such ordinary people that they could easily bear their unbearableness into any one of our lives. But they were great. I read them and re-read them.

Maybe I’m finally growing up.

P.S. Here is a great review from the Virginia Quarterly of “Too Much Happiness,” the Alice Munro collection that includes “Dimension.” Puts it much better than I can.

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