The rise of short stories
As far as books go in 2018, less is definitely more. Here’s a brief guide to a little bit of literature
Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño once said that a short-story writer should be brave. His American compatriot Lorrie Moore said: "A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film." Fiction rock star Haruki Murakami spoke of his short stories being like soft shadows that he has put out in the world, faint footprints he has left.
Whichever way you see it, it’s undeniable that a truncated world of words is having its moment. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll be met with a barrage of short story collections. Even movie star Tom Hanks released his own compact compendium last year.
And Kristen Roupenian, the author of Cat Person, The New Yorker short story about modern dating that went viral in 2017, is in on the act. She recently signed an astonishing seven-digit book deal — in US dollars no less — for her first collection of tiny tales. It will be called You Know You Want This and is set for release in 2019.
This literary trend makes sense if you think about it. After all, who’s got time to read all of Ulysses in between ignoring spam phone calls and social media snooping? But you do have time for a tightly woven, perfectly formed little tale, don’t you? Dip into one piece today. Read the next tomorrow. It requires very little commitment.
The FM asked Joburg bookshop Love Books’ story sage Anna Joubert to do some digging on the collections of bijoux literary works we should be adding to the piles next to our beds.
Here’s what she recommends.
The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions by Ken Barris
Get a copy of this award-winning writer’s (and a judge of this year’s Sunday Times Barry Ronge Award for Fiction) latest book and prepare to read of plugs, old age, time passing, death and reviewing mustard bottles.
You will be enthralled and mesmerised by this assemblage of stories and Barris’s wonderful descriptions and turns of phrase. The book has just won this year’s Herman Charles Bosman prize.
Stations and The First Law of Sadness by Nick Mulgrew
There are two books on the list by prolific author/Mandela Rhodes scholar/all-round cool guy, Mulgrew. His first, Stations, won the 2016 Thomas Pringle Award. His stories are all set amid such familiarity and normality and are about the sorts of characters we all know (and often find deeply irritating or unlikeable).
Yet they are bizarre and devastating tales; real and utterly brutal.
The Fatuous State of Severity by Phumlani Pikoli
Pikoli’s collection of short stories (and illustrations) deals with young, urban South Africans. He writes about how they handle relationships and dating, the weirdness of social media and language insecurities. The collection is sharp, short, bold, brave and severe. If you’re older than, say, 30 it will give you a glimpse into the strangely (perhaps alarming) foreign universe of youngsters. Thanks to my teenagers, I know what he means when he talks about "Tumblr".
Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree by Niq Mhlongo
The extremely talented Mhlongo has fashioned a lovely little book that offers a glimpse into our most famous township, and greater Joburg too. It portrays the wonderful, the sad, the stressful and the entertaining moments of everyday life.
The Early Stories of Truman Capote by Truman Capote
This collection was just the start of the great 20th century writer’s brilliance. And we mean that literally; all the stories in this Penguin Modern Classics edition were penned when Capote was in his early teens. They offer the world view of a young gay boy growing up in the American South in the 1930s and 1940s — but even in these early days, his writing is flecked with beauty, insight and huge potential.
The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
See this as a book you must have on your shelves. It’s an especially good reminder of how far the short story has come. The Penguin Classics version offers good translation from the playwright’s Russian and the story for which the compilation is named — about marriage, an affair and love — is just as relevant as it was when it was published at the end of the 19th century.
New(ish) kids on the block
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
If you want Booker prize-winning Mantel in your life but can’t commit to a mammoth read like Wolf Hall, then this is for you. Expect an unsettlingly dark undercurrent in her witty, smart pieces about panic rooms, badly behaved rich people, crumbling marriages and — as the name suggests — an exceedingly bad day for the late prime minister.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado does for me what Gabriel Garcia Márquez did with A Hundred Years of Solitude in the 1980s. Really, this collection of short stories is magical — but in a whole new, contemporary way. As writer Roxane Gay best described it: "[These stories] vibrate with originality, queerness, sensuality and the strange."
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
Fans of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides should get hold of a copy of Eugenides’ anthology of stories. As with his long-form stuff, this writing is beguiling. He jumps from zooming in on the mundane everyday small stuff to the truly unsettling and awkward — leaving you to think about what you’ve read for a long time after.
What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
This Nigerian writer will hook you immediately. She writes about worlds that are familiar and about families we feel we’ve known forever after just a few pages — but in a disquieting, magical way. She conjures up tales of domestic violence, yearning for children and of the ties that bind fathers and daughters.
We defy you to read Light without a big lump in your throat.
Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell
Here’s a fun one. American author Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry), and acclaimed graphic artist Campbell are a newly married couple in real life. They’ve also created a graphic novel collection that’s all about love. The stories are all drawn in different styles and take different formats.
They’re clever, sarcastic and crazy. And they feature monsters, spouses behaving badly, the supernatural and a whole lot of cats.