The satisfaction of a short story: a glimpse into a life, a space, a possibility (or lack thereof). A glance, a scene, a memory. Didn’t like that story? Try another.
The best short stories leave us feeling satisfied at the perfection of a tale told briefly and well. My earliest favorites, from junior high school days, were “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Lottery.” More recently, I’ve loved Elizabeth Strout’s collection, Olive, Again—and especially “Light,” the story of Olive’s renewed acquaintance with a former student who is terminally ill. When I finished reading “Light,” I just sat, book in hand, for a long, long time, humbled by its beauty and truth.
(The Guardian ran a list of short story favorites last year that you may want to check out.)
The title piece of Susan Minot’s short story collection, “Why I Don’t Write,” is one of its standouts. It’s a collage of statements that evoke the distractions that can plague writers—and by inference, women writers specifically, and even more specifically: “Women writers without children: many. Women writers with children: few.” Minot’s juxtaposition of ideas and impressions is artful and thought-provoking:
Tree branches flashing by the car window. The beauty.
Jane Austen. Flannery O’Connor. The Brönte sisters. Husbands?
Need new socks. New underwear. Tomorrow?
Of the billions of creatures alive today and the billions of creatures who have lived, not one has come up with an adequate explanation of why we are here.
I watch my daughter dance with a frown on her face and a warm feeling washes over my chest.
Dust haloing the lampshade.
Out of seeming chaos, a story emerges.
I also loved “Boston Common at Twilight” and “The Language of Cats and Dogs,” two stories linked by their themes of young people struggling with family upheaval and sexual predation—with very different resolutions. Checking Minot’s entry in Wikipedia after finishing the book (not an unusual step these days), I was surprised to find some parallels between the details of her life and that of Sophie, the protagonist in “Language.” Writers have been weaving fiction from fact for generations, but I can only hope that Minot had as much agency as Sophie, when faced with the designs of an influential older man.
All the stories in Minot’s collection had interesting plots, settings, and characters that kept me reading, even if some didn’t strike quite so strong a spark. Perhaps they’ll speak to the next reader. That’s the mystery and allure of a short story collection.