A few years ago, I read a post about short stories and the challenges book groups had to them. Short story collections rarely get discussed in book clubs because as Dawn explained in her above post, how do you discuss not one story but many?
Last year, I took this very challenge to my college English class where we read and discussed Jhumpra Lahiri’s collection, Unaccustomed Earth--brilliant and energizing. Between that and having two short story collections out, I thought I’d update my thoughts on discussion groups and short stories.
I’ve had much success with short stories, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s not just book clubs that are resistant to short stories. Every part of the publishing industry is. Yet, thanks in part to Jhumpra Lahiri’s book selling so well, the ice has been melting.
My first inkling short story publication would be hard was in the late nineties when I first tried to get a few of my short stories published. I’d been a produced playwright, and I’d written short stories for years, often between plays. A few magazines, such as The New Yorker and Harpers publish short stories, but I couldn’t start there. I had no name.
Literary magazines made sense, but I soon learned that it’s more likely you’ll be struck from lightning than published in literary magazines. When you consider the North Dakota Quarterly receives over 500 short stories a month and publishes maybe ten an issue for no payment to a circulation of 800, you can see the problem. Few magazines publish short stories, journals don’t pay you for them, and few people read them.
Still, I love the form. I happen to teach English and creative writing, and I’ve found my students might not understand short stories at first, but they come to love them. The joy they get in discussing, for instance, “Lust” by Susan Minot, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor, or “Carnal Knowledge” by T.C. Boyle is visible and rises as my students offer insight to each other. I conduct class like a book club. Every voice has weight. My students ask questions of each other. Certain details bring meaning. I encourage thinking.
As for my publishing short fiction, lightning struck--several times. I managed to publish several short stories in literary magazines over a few years and had the brilliant idea of putting the stories into a collection.
My second challenge with short fiction came when I tried to get my published stories collected into a book. I knew a literary agent and sent him the manuscript to see if he’d represent me. He called. “I love your stories,” he said. “You’re a great writer. You should write a novel.”
I said I probably would someday, but could he send my collection out for possible publication? He said no. “There’s no money in short fiction. Any advance you’d get would be small. For the time it would take me to set it up, I’d get 15% of almost nothing. I can’t do it. Write a novel.”
This went back and forth with my suggestion that all he needs to do is put a cover letter on the collection, send it to a few places, and see what happens. “Write a novel,” he said to end it.
I’ll give this to the man: he got me to write a novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, which sold well. When my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2006, and the Los Angeles Times reviewed it and well, the agent called to congratulate me, even though he wasn’t my agent. For my second collection, Months and Seasons, producer Sally Shore and the Beverly Hills Library presented four of my stories by actors in solo performance. Both books have won awards.
This brings me the latest hurdle: how a book club might embrace and approach discussing a short story collection. My notion is that short story collections as a whole should be thought of as rock albums. That’s because it’s often the way collections are put together. I fret like Bruce Springsteen over the order of the tales. I work and rework the table of contents. Some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader’s emotions should have ups and downs.
Your club, in discussing a short story collection, doesn’t need to do a whole collection in one night. You can divide it in two evenings and in that way savor favorite stories. Another benefit is that with hurried lives, your club members might appreciate not having to read so many pages over two weeks or a month. In fact, members will have a chance to read certain stories twice, finding much more in a second reading. In my class, we divided discussion into four 80-minute sessions. Book clubs tend to meet for two hours or more, so one or two sessions will be a delight.
As you discuss each story, someone might ask are there themes or concepts that are apparent throughout the stories? Do the stories bring light to this confusing thing we call life—and how do the stories do that? When someone likes or hates something, the why is important.
Good writers allow the subconscious mind to lay imagery and ideas in their stories, and readers may find concrete meaning in things that slipped in. I titled my first collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea because it was funny, playing with Hemingway’s title. Yet reviewers found water imagery in a number of stories that played into theme. I had to admit it was there, but it wasn’t conscious.
With Months and Seasons, I was aware of wanting to write stories about time—narratives of different people at different ages. One story has a seven-year-old girl who is afraid of the water. Another story has a 78-year-old playwright afraid of a raging fire.
What is each reader’s favorite story and why? My favorite part in reading reviews of my books is discovering which story hit home the most. Different reviewers have different favorites.
I happen to be serious about my fiction in that stories should entertain and open doors. I sat in on a book club reading my work, and it was fun. There were times the discussion was spirited—someone didn’t like something while someone else thought it was brilliant. You know book clubs. It’s not about agreement; it’s about disagreement and trying to get others see your point of view. It’s about this crazy life.
Now my latest challenge is getting people aware of my new novel, Love At Absolute Zero, about a physics genius who uses the tools of science to find his soul mate in three days. Science, I’ve learned, intimidates people—but in my book, it slips down like a good whiskey.
I love book clubs.
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