Short stories: an antidote to troubled times

Italo Calvino, Zadie Smith, Alexia Arthurs, Rudyard Kipling, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, William Faulkner

Before this year, I was never much of a fan of short stories. I found them unsatisfying, dense, too brief to provoke an emotional response or stay in my memory for any amount of time. But about six months ago, I started to find long fiction draining — no doubt in response to the looming uncertainty of unusual times. I found it impossible to focus on novels and lose myself in their twisting narratives and cast of characters. Suddenly, short stories seemed more palatable.

So in March, three friends and I resolved to read and discuss one short story per week.

It started as a temporary project: a way to connect through the internet with old friends and inject a bit of culture into lock-down life. But twenty-four stories later, it’s still going strong. We’ve considered questions spanning form, character, theme; critical approaches from marxism to ecocriticism; intertextuality from art history to the yanny/laurel debate. But above all, we’ve delighted in sharing stories that illuminate (or endarken) the human condition, in all its diverse forms. We’ve had very few answers, instead relishing in open-ended readings which celebrate ambiguity and difference. I’ve been reminded of the power of art to open minds. Shining a light on nuance and complexity has been, for me, a remedy for an often polarising modern world.

Most of the stories we’ve read have been freely available online; here are ten of the best.

Dreamy, free-flowing, symbolic. This story floats in a space where love, desire and loss bump and collide.

Fatou works as a maid in a wealthy house in North-West London. Smith explores the urban anonymity that can hide devastating inequalities. It’s a micro-masterpiece.

As the narrator returns to Jamaica, this time as a tourist, Arthurs explores outsiders and belonging. It’s a struggle to know where you feel at home.

Winning the BBC National Short Story Award 2019, this story is set in a rural Welsh village somewhere in the timeless past. The supernatural is used both as an escape from hardships and as a mirror to the injustice of feudal life.

Kipling is highly unfashionable, and it was fascinating discussing this story alongside Black Lives Matter and the toppling of the Colston statue. Should we disregard Kipling’s work for his patriotic affirmation of imperialism? Can we separate art and artist, text and author?

Amos’s cruel prose is biting and acerbic, but also very, very funny. This story satirises the absurdity of 90s publishing and the arts-made-corporate.

A despairing look at modern misogyny and the difficulties of feminism. I found this a hard read, but massively worthwhile.

Murakami’s magic-realism looks at trauma and survival. Like much of Murakami’s writing, a quiet, almost soothing veneer thinly veils deepset psychological turmoil.

A cold landscape in Canada; a tuberculosis hospital just before antibiotics; a stunted love affair. This is a beautifully crafted story of loneliness and failure.

Faulker’s long sentences entwine a boy coming-of-age in violent surroundings. He must choose where his loyalties lie. It builds to a compelling conclusion.

For online short stories suitable for secondary school students, help yourself to my short story reading challenge here.

With thanks to…

…co writer Edward Hancox, Alys Denby and Electra Stamatopoulos — fellow short story enthusiasts and readers-in-arms.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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