Writing short stories takes a special kind of author, one who cam compress language to its densest form, one who can masterfully piece together a believable story arc in just a few pages – They need to be precise in their delivery and they need to capture the attention of their reader quickly. Single serving fiction, a short story, is the perfect for for our digital age.
I first discovered my passion for short stories at University – In my first year I had a favorite spot in the James Hight library which happened to be amongst the English Literature ( Dewey #813.08 ) stacks, not a subject I studied but I liked the view, the quiet and the short stories.
When I first started work for Borders in 2005 Penguin published 70 pocket sized editions to celebrate their 70th birthday. Most of the selections were excerpts from larger works that were characteristic of the depth and breadth of the penguin stable of authors but the collection also included a number of short stories by very well recognized authors; Roald Dahl, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Dave Eggers and John Steinbeck.
I bought #69 John Steinbeck’s Murder as I was in the midst of delving into ‘Of Mice and Men’ and needed a break. . . ( I have no idea why I chose the same author. . . ) I devoured the collection in an afternoon and it has been a little book that has moved house with me too many times for me to count.
First published in 1938 as part of a larger collection; ‘The Long Valley’, Steinbeck’s short stories ( The Chrysanthemums, Breakfast, The vigilante and The Murder ) are full of the unpleasant side of life experienced by the suffering poor in 1930s America. He had the ability to paint a picture of the the grim reality, the gritty, the nasty and the downright ugly. Steinbeck provided a powerful voice to those with no voice in the heart of depression.
Steinbeck’s titular tale, The Murder, tells the story of a Salinas Valley farmer who marries an eastern european woman, while at first they appear happy, their marriage suffers as a result of a massive cultural divide and eventually they drift apart. I won’t spoil the ending but you can probably guess where the story goes by the title. . .
The Chrysanthemums is about a woman living a stifling existence on her husband’s ranch. This narrative is unusual, it forces the reader to think about what is not said, there is a tone, a dull intonation that runs through the story – On the surface the story seems so banal, so uninteresting, yet it is such an important study of the female protagonist trapped in an unequal and restrictive marriage but who’s strength and vitality shine through.
Women were usually one of two things in Steinbeck’s work; a prostitute or a downtrodden appendage, a wife who is by all means and purpose a possession – although written with dignity and compassion, still unfulfilled, desolate and lonely. Steinbeck creates incredibly detailed environment with such an economy of words, he has such an understated writing style which put even the novice reader at complete ease. His stories are so unsettling and so powerful they resonate even today, 80 years later.
Next time you’re in a bookstore, think about trying a collection of short stories, think about stepping out of your comfort zone, I promise it would be worth your while.