Thursday 25 March 2010

In the Garden...

I've been taking part in a Faith and Fiction Round Table discussion of Tobias Wolff's In The Garden of the North American Martyrs - to be honest, the 'Faith' bit didn't seem to come into the discussion that much, but it was still fun to compare notes. Quite a few of us have sections of the discussion on our blogs - check out the links at the bottom. It's my first dabble in this sort of thing, hope you find it of some interest... let me know if you've read any Tobias Wolff.

I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of the short story form. Unless a story is particularly well written with strong momentum and a sort of "punch to the gut" feeling, I often wonder why I even read it. There were a few stories in this collection that I thought were excellent, but for the most part, I simply appreciated the perceptive writing. I am curious as to how all of you feel about short stories and additionally how often you read them.

Hannah: I'm not a big fan of the short story form, either, Amy. However, this may be my favorite short story collection I've ever finished — at least since college. (That's not exactly saying much, though, because I don't read many.)

Pete: I have a sort of love/hate relationship with short stories and this book is a great example of why. There's no doubt that the author is an incredibly perceptive writer and I was engaged throughout the book on that strength alone. But there are quite a few of the shorts that left me feeling like I hadn't 'gone' anywhere. To my way of thinking, that's the point of a story, to take the reader with you somewhere. At times, I felt like these shorts just sort of ran out of gas before any destination was reached.

Now, let me say also that I'm often wrong about such things. My first reaction to something like No Country for Old Men is similar. Sometimes endings have to work on me a bit before they sink in and satisfy (and sometimes dissatisfaction is the point, right?). But in the case of a short story, I feel like there's not enough journey in the first place to necessarily earn that open ending.

I have several shorts myself that I've never published anywhere for this very reason. I feel like they contain a lot of solid writing and solid characterization, adequate conflict, etc. but they just don't really 'go' anywhere. So in the drawer they sit.

RC: I actually really appreciate the short story form for the fact that the goal isn't necessarily to go somewhere, but use a few characters, a simple setting, and a short period of time (usually) to say something, and it's often in the going nowhere that fosters the discussion because if you walk away saying "nothing happened" that that probably means you have to look deeper at what the author is saying. (Whether you like it or not).

Simon: Like a few of us, I have a love/hate relationship with short stories. One of my favourite writers is Katherine Mansfield, and I think the short story can create some of the best writing - but also some of the worst. For the most part I found that Wolff's stories veered towards the former, but some of them didn't do anything for me.

Kate: I pick up a short story collection every once in a while, but it isn’t my typical type of book. I know what I like to read and tend to stick to it. I decided to participate in this discussion to force me out of my comfort zone. I’m glad I did, but I didn’t like the book.

Stephen: Amy, I don't read many short stories either, but I really liked these because it felt like there was something to talk about with every one of them, a lot going on beneath the surface. I think you make a good point, RC, that these stories require you to look deeper at what the author is saying when at first it seems nothing much is happening.

For the rest of this discussion, check out these blogs:

The Quirky Redhead, My Friend Amy, Strange Culture, The Fiddler's Gun, Rebelling Against Indifference, Wordlily


  1. Well, regarding short stories - I often only get them if nothing else is around and I like the author - but Doris Lessing's short stories are good. I've just read some brilliant ones by Jane Gardam - The Sidmouth Letters. She is a top writer - able to bring a world to life in some quick lively accurate writing, witty too. I think you would like her Simon - she's good at summing up old England eg upper middle classes from awhile back, village life, almost '30s people. And the last story is about a Jane Austen lovelife revelation.

  2. This is a well-timed post. Yesterday my sister (the writer one) sent me a book of "stuff" written by students on a creative writing degree. Your comment about short stories being some of the worst writing is very apt. It's obvious that most of these aren't published writers yet. I struggled through most of the pieces thinking that I really wouln't bother if i icked up this book somewhere. I really only enjoyed 2, one written in the first person which always warms me to a piece of writing and the other by my sister and so i am biased. Apart from being biased i like th eway my sister writes. she writes the sort of stuff I WOULD read even if I wasn't related to her ...
    So many short stories are laboured. They attempt to squeeze a lot of information into the piece. I prefer writing were you are not told much but the words used, the way the sentences are put together, the feeling of the piece allows your imagination to fill in the gaps.
    You may not have to gather as many words but they have to be even more well-chosen and, thinking of Morecambe and Wise, very definitely in the right order.

  3. I haven't read too many short stories since my long-ago college days, but I did receive The Complete Stories of Flannery O' Connor back in December and am hoping to dip into some of them during the summer.

  4. You are so right that the faith bit barely came in. ;) For some reason, it felt less obvious with this book. Thanks for your participation, Simon!

  5. I, too, think the reason the discussion didn't center on faith was because the book didn't really lay that out there.

  6. Reading Ruth's comment here makes me think about how some of my favorite stories are short stories...but because of their "length" and "artistic value" it's easy to have a lot of short stories to weed through to finds the one that are particularly interesting or tweek something inside of you.

  7. I agree on the faith part. I kept waiting for it and waiting...never got there with this book.

    These comments got me thinking. In one of the other discussions, I said that I don't really like short stories. I guess there are some I like, but you have to sort through so many poorly written ones, that the good ones get lost in the shuffle.


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