Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Reflections on A Month of Short Stories

We're all forced to read a lot of short stories in school, from those elementary level "Reading" or "Language" segments of our day right on up through secondary English studies. Those of us who go on to be English majors tend to love novels. How many of us read as many short stories in adulthood as we did when we were young? 

Yet, there are certainly plenty of us writing short stories. It's just what so many of us writers do, and while we all read novels (yes, all writers--if someone says "I'm a writer" but doesn't read, then that someone is lying to you), we don't all spend as much time perusing short fiction, despite the fact that we want some magazine somewhere to publish all the stories we've written. Don't we owe it to ourselves to read some regularly, then?  

This, coupled with a random piece I stumbled across on Arts.Mic called "14 Brilliant Pieces of Literature You Can Read in the Time It Takes to Eat Lunch" inspired me to read a short story per day throughout the month of July and blog about each one. The fourteen suggestions from the online article were, overall, just OK, in my opinion (though definitely short! you can read them in the time it takes to eat a few bites of your lunch!) but to fill out my month I also delved into a Norton anthology and The Best American Short Stories of the Century as well as a book of Kafka's collected stories that I had from the library. 

And now, we shall examine the results of the 30 stories from 27 authors (I allowed myself a holiday for the 4th!) of my July project: A Month of Short Stories (and Their Authors).I gave them each a grade, and I'm happy to report that no one failed; the grade distribution was like this:
A+: one, A: five, A-: six, B+: seven, B: four, B-: three, C+: four

My short story champion is "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell. It was so well-done! A rural couple of a previous era (the story was published in 1917) are drawn into the death of a neighbor; there's a sheriff, a home without its residents, an element of mystery, a decrying of sexism, a subtextual plea for people to be nicer to one another... I adore this story. It's, as we like to say, deep. 

There were several great stories that received an A but I think my other favorite, thus perhaps the best of the As or perhaps just the one that most spoke to me, was Doris Lessing's "To Room Nineteen." Oh my, do I like that one. It packs a punch in thematic ways I totally dig. I was also impressed by Ring Lardner, adored Katherine Anne Porter's writing (as always), and managed to give an A to both Chekhov and Faulkner, who have tormented me in the past. Really, my sixteen-year-old self  who read them previously was probably just tormented anyway, and I projected it onto those guys. It's interesting to read them in the cold, hard light of adulthood. 

All right then, so here's the list of my July short stories, by grade: 

A+  "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell
A  "To Room Nineteen" by Doris Lessing
A  "The Looking Glass" by Anton Chekhov
A  "The Golden Honeymoon" by Ring Lardner
A  "Theft" by Katherine Anne Porter
A  "That Evening Sun Go Down" by William Faulkner
A-  "In the Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka
A-  "The Judgment" by Franz Kafka
A-  "The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia Woolf
A-  "The Gate-Keeper" by Francois Coppee
A-  "Little Selves" by Mary Lerner
A-  "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin
B+  "Happy Endings" by Margaret Atwood
B+  "The Road From Colonus" by E.M. Forster
B+  "A Country Doctor" by Franz Kafka
B+  "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros
B+ "Adams" by George Saunders
B+ "The Other Woman" by Sherwood Anderson
B+  "Reunion" by John Cheever
B   "Clay" by James Joyce
B   "The School" by Donald Barthelme
B   "The Killers" by Ernest Hemingway
B   "Double Birthday" by Willa Cather
B-  "The Last Night of the World" by Ray Bradbury
B-  "Zelig" by Benjamin Rosenblatt
B-  "Pygmalion" by John Updike
C+ "The Sock" by Lydia Davis
C+ "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro
C+ "Blood-Burning Moon" by Jean Toomer
C+ "Wild Plums" by Grace Stone Coates

Those were the original grades I gave them, and as I think back over the month, they are still for the most part how I feel.  Of the C-plussers, "Blood-Burning Moon" I at least have to give credit to for being a decent story, structured, with substance, etc., but I just didn't really enjoy it. Those other three at the bottom of the list were pretty weak. Two of the B-minuses, also nothing to write home about, are already faded in my memory, but I remember Bradbury's "The Last Night of the World" really well, so maybe it should be bumped up to a B for being so vividly rendered?  Lots of B and B+ stories, definitely. 

What was the best thing about this project? Well, probably that I found myself reading stories by fantastic authors. In how many given months of your life do you spend time with even one of those classic, prize-winning, critically acclaimed, famous, sometimes beloved, sometimes loathed, solidly-entrenched-in-the-canon authors, let alone a dozen of them? (Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Chekhov, Kafka, Forster, Joyce, Cather...) along with other 20th century stalwarts (Lessing, Updike, Atwood, Cisneros, Saunders, Bradbury, Cheever) and fantastic past writers whose stars have faded a teensy bit but definitely need to be revived (Glaspell, Lardner, Anderson...)? It's a great experience! 

What was the worst thing? Well, the hardest thing was definitely those few days that I didn't get around to reading a story until late in the evening; I was tired, it was 11:30, but I had to read a story and get something up on the blog about it before the day was done. Luckily, I had that "14 Brilliant Pieces..." article, whose stories were almost all very short, and on those days I clicked through to one of those, whereas on the other days, when I did my story in the morning or afternoon, I tended to go to the books that risked bringing me longer stories. 

Did I notice any patterns among my favorites? I suppose one could point out the feminism of my two favorite stories I read this month, Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers" and Doris Lessing's "To Room Nineteen." Actually, all of the top-grade stories, the As and A+, had to do with marriage--"Theft" perhaps less than the others, but with it still in there a little bit. That's an interesting pattern I wouldn't have predicted. 

A C+ for Alice Munro, who recently won the Nobel Prize?!?!  What can I say? "Boys and Girls" didn't impress me much. Don't worry; I'm going to give her another chance. I just didn't care for the story, despite its apparent effort to challenge gender roles. It just left me reeling from all the acceptance of fur farming it oozed. 

Did I read anything else during month? Of course! This is one of those things like how busy people sometimes get more extra stuff done, like by forcing themselves to schedule a workout, and errands, and whatnot, they manage to fit it all in, unlike the person having some lazing days who thinks s/he has enough time to get to it all and then never does. Because I had to read my short story every day, I would often get that done and be pumped up for more reading time. I love to read anyway, but I was definitely focused on my reading plans. In July I also read Little Women (parts one and two, as they say), a couple of mysteries, two bios (of Martin Amis and Emile Zola -- this literary blog's A & Z from my original blog reading project, how about that!) and a few other things. 

Am I going to repeat this project? Well, I'm actually continuing with the rest of the stories in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, although I'm not forcing myself to blog about them and I am trying to do three or so per day, in order to get through them all before having to return the book to the library. And I have a couple of other books of short stories from the library right now, too, that I am working my way through (Chinua Achebe's Girls at War and Other Stories because I-came-across-it-why-not? and a book of Polish short stories in anticipation of my upcoming trip to Poland -- fingers crossed, as I'm trying to raise another $500 for Habitat for Humanity here in order to take that trip). 

What other reading projects do I have going right now? Well. First of all, I'm still reading a poet or two a day from The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, the Full 3,000-Year Tradition), and I am also continuing to read Pulitzer-winning novels, my A-to-Z follow-up "semi-finalists," and a bio of every president in order to see where we went wrong, a project obviously conceived and begun during the Dubya administration; I'm on FDR. 

And with that, let's get back to our reading, shall we!