NOº 5670

Desert Island Five: Short-Story Collections

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Desert Island Five, Sacred Texts

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If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d need these five short-story collections to keep me company:

  • No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July
  • Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
  • The Best American Short Stories: 1991, Alice Adams, ed.
  • Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Nine Stories, J. D. Salinger

Allow me to begin by offering up something that may be obvious: a novel is a story but a story isn’t necessarily a novel. Voltaire (or somebody) is supposed to have written to a friend, “Forgive the long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” The compression of a short story requires discipline, patience, and above all time. What you decide to leave out is often so much more important than what you keep.

Or, if you prefer a concrete metaphor: making a short story is carving something—a duck, let’s say—from a block of wood; making a novel is building a house. Both use wood, yes, but the differences are profound:

  • There’s a bigger market for houses and more people appreciate them.
  • Just because you can build a house doesn’t mean you can carve a duck—or vice versa.
  • Though houses are framed with wood, a builder uses a vast array of other materials. A carved wooden duck is one thing, through and through.
  • A house exists because somebody’s going to inhabit it. As it is being built, the presence of that eventual homeowner haunts the process. Someone will sleep in this bedroom, climb this staircase, rinse soap from her hands in this sink. Etc.
  • The carved duck exists for its own sake, and for the carver’s. Someone else can appreciate it, even fall in love with it and buy it and put it on a shelf in a house built just for them. But they cannot inhabit it. It isn’t really theirs. The essential relationship is between the made thing—the duck—and its maker, whereas with a house, the essential relationship is between the made thing and its consumer.

Maybe we’re somewhere in the nether regions between art and craft and their respective connotations: “inspiration” and work.  Surely short stories and novels require both, and it’s silly to suggest otherwise. But the balance of art and craft in writing stories is different than it is in novels. The four writers listed here have all written novels. So have many of the individual writers represented in the Best American anthology (which is here because it’s the first book of contemporary short stories I ever bought and several of its inclusions—Charles Baxter’s “The Disappeared,” Elizabeth’s Graver’s “The Body Shop,” Rick Bass’s “The Legend of Pig Eye”—immediately and permanently burned themselves into my brain as perfect templates of what a story is).

But—and I mean this as high praise—these writers are carvers at heart. For an attention-deficit culture, anyone who models patience, discipline, and intense focus is a potential guru. [Here is where I’m tempted to remind you that Jesus himself taught in parables—for the reasons above and also because he knew what a good metaphor could do—but that would probably be overkill, wouldn’t it? Yeah. Probably. So I won’t.]


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