Marcel Proust’s brother said the problem with In Search of Lost Time was that people “have to be very ill or have a broken leg” in order to read it. Or, he might add today, be confined to their homes in response to a global pandemic. In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown my Twitter feed was full of conversations about whether it was time to read Middlemarch or The Brothers Karamazov, Bleak House or The Anatomy of Melancholy. Whether because of furloughing or just not being able to go to the pub, the general assumption among readers was that there would be a lot of free time to catch up on the big ones that had until now, like Ahab’s white whale, got away.
But as time passed I saw these plans fall beneath an avalanche of sourdough starters, 1,000-piece puzzles and Zoom pub quizzes. Even for those who weren’t poleaxed by home schooling and the demands of childcare, something seemed to be making it hard to concentrate on novels – or at least the ones that hadn’t been filmed and considerately deployed to iPlayer, like Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
So did the lockdown represent the perfect moment for short stories: those small, sharp bursts of literary flavour? Those Skittles of the book world, as some seem to consider them. I’ve written before against the argument that short stories are ideal for time-pressured readers, or, even worse, short attention spans, but I can’t put it better than Lorrie Moore:
There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story … people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have 15 minutes. And that is often how novels are read, 15 minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.
The time just before lockdown began was weird and chaotic: my wife and I and our daughters fell ill with presumed Covid-19, and it killed my best friend’s mum. But as we recovered and settled into the strange new everyday, I found that short stories really were the reading material that best fit my days. Not because they slip down easily, but because whenever I put a book down, the move from fiction back to reality was so jarring that what I’d just read would be overpowered. The space in my mind where novels persisted when I wasn’t reading them suddenly seemed to be missing, or busy with some other task (comparing national death rates, perhaps). The only things that survived were those I began and finished in one sitting.
So whenever I could, between cooking and trying to teach maths, I read a story. I read “The Open Boat”, Stephen Crane’s gripping tale of survival at sea, Joseph Conrad’s haunting account of doubleness, “The Secret Sharer”, and Julio Cortázar’s ingenious Möbius strip of a story, “Continuity of Parks”. They took me far from locked-down London, to Paris, Thailand and the Florida coast, and brought me back again before the next news report or government briefing colonised anything else I was trying to think about.
But then, I am a special case: I knew this was going to be a spring and summer of reading short fiction anyway, because I’m one of the judges for this year’s BBC National short story award. In order to test my theory I needed to see if other people shared my experience, ideally people who habitually read a wide range of literature, including short stories. So I got in touch with writers who had won or been shortlisted for the NSSA over the last 14 years – a cohort that represents a recent history of the short story in the UK.
Some have struggled to read fiction of any kind. “I’m finding stories a bit too long, and also made up,” Kate Clanchy tells me. “There doesn’t seem any need to make anything up right now. I’m only able to read poetry, essays, and the newspapers.” Lionel Shriver feels the same way. “I have been so rattled by the news,” she says, “that other than the odd short story I have stopped reading fiction. I’m ashamed to say that because at the same time I’m releasing a novel, so I obviously expect other people to read my fiction.”
This idea of reading as refuge made me wonder about comfort reading, a concept I’ve always found troubling: what about being challenged, upset or disturbed?
Lucy Caldwell, twice shortlisted and one of my fellow judges this year, tells a similar story of disturbed reading patterns, describing her engagement with books as “idle, frantic, slippery, vague. I’m reading far less than normal and am a much worse reader, which is terrifying: for my whole life, reading has been the place I go to.” This idea of reading as refuge made me wonder about comfort reading, a concept I’ve always found troubling: what about being challenged, upset or disturbed? One of the things I love most about short stories is their ambiguity and irresolution – the opposite of comfort.
Sarah Hall helped clarify my thinking when she told me: “I don’t turn to literature for comfort or consolation.” Short stories, she said, “require steady nerves and receptiveness on the part of the reader – a willingness to be affected, troubled and accept opacity”. This chimed with something Claire-Louise Bennett had said to me a few days earlier: “The first short stories I read were folk tales, which, on the one hand, are so vivid and specific, yet intensely mysterious and unyielding too. Those stories were not reassuring and they weren’t meant to be.”
But it is also the case that taking comfort or pleasure in a book needn’t mean the literary equivalent of sponge pudding or a hot water bottle. “If a book is well written it doesn’t matter if it’s about something horrific or depressing,” says Jon McGregor. “I just take pleasure in the construction and the writing of it.” Shriver, citing “You Will Never Be Forgotten” by Mary South, a story “about a woman stalking her rapist”, says that, “there’s nothing comforting about that material. What comforts me is good writing. Beyond that, I’m happy to be disturbed.”
Tahmima Anam, however, feels quite differently. “I want to be consoled by fiction right now,” she says. “I want it to give me a warm, non-judgmental hug. At the start of lockdown, when I was feeling particularly tender, all I could stomach was a little Jane Austen. I went straight for Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, and by the time I was finished the world felt a bit less cold.”
For Hall, challenge is its own reward. She describes reading a good short story as like “being held between two opposing magnetic forces, which has something to do with both compression of narrative form and the content of the story – that’s the real draw for me, the insecurity and possible reversals I’ll face as a reader.” Once she’s there, she says, “I don’t care how much I’m messed around with psychologically or morally – the more the better, probably. I imagine I’ll always love short stories, even in the apocalypse.”
But Anam’s position isn’t about avoiding difficult subject matter. “It’s not that I want to be comforted as in not challenged, but I want to be satisfied. Short stories are shots of espresso – bitter, sharp, and always leaving you slightly unsatisfied. The end of a novel is satisfying the way the end of a short story could never be.” Tessa Hadley, one of the country’s most accomplished short-story writers, also “loves that feeling of immersion in a good novel, a whole world you re-enter each time you pick the book up, as known and alive as your own world is alive.” If fewer readers enjoy short stories, she thinks it’s probably because of “the strenuousness of short story reading”, which demands “more finding your way. More strangeness, perhaps, in the sense that inside a story we’re more puzzled, proportionately, for more of the total of pages, making out what the world of the story is, who its inhabitants are, and what we’re supposed to make of them.” I am struck by how her words could double as a description of the last few months, which we fumbled through as if determining the shape of a new world, and what we made of it.
But I didn’t only want to know the outline of what these writers had been reading. I wanted to talk specifics. What has everyone been reading? McGregor has found himself returning to George Saunders, “for the fun he has with voice and register, and how much he loves his characters – even, or especially, the flawed ones”. He has also gone back to Wendy Erskine’s collection Sweet Home, “because I can’t work out how she breathes so much life into her stories”. Cynan Jones, who when I spoke to him hadn’t left his rural property for 70 days, “other than one car dash to check a neighbour’s farm gate was closed”, has felt the need for tales of adventure, “the old-fashioned thing that drew me to stories in the first place. I read Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner last week. Wow! Everyone should read it.”
Hadley has been rereading Lucia Berlin’s “superb” short stories, as has Lucy Caldwell: “On a sentence-by-sentence level she’s peerless.” Ingrid Persaud, the 2018 NSSA winner, found strength in Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, a book she describes as having the ability to “stare down” the current moment of instability and anxiety. Mark Haddon recommended Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation, and he and Jo Lloyd, winner of last year’s prize, both vouched for the Calvino-like inventions of Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars.
Lloyd has been avoiding her favourites – Deborah Eisenberg and Edward P Jones – in favour of stories “with a little bit of magic or otherness”, including “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” by Karen Russell, and “The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut the Whaler” by Jessie Greengrass. Di Speirs, books editor for BBC Radio and, as a founder of the NSSA and sitting judge, perhaps the best-read short story-lover in the country, recommends William Trevor’s collection The Ballroom of Romance, Alice Munro and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black.
Hadley and Anam also gave Alice Munro a nod. For Anam she’s “flawless”, while Hadley praised her story “Carried Away”, “because it’s magnificent, and because it’s set in the aftermath of the first world war and the flu epidemic, and yet it’s so clear-eyed, funny, hungry, salty with irony.” For something from the here and now, another former winner of the prize, KJ Orr, told me she’s been kept up at night by the stories in Dima Alzayat’s recent debut collection Alligator.
Short stories have been the answer for me during the lockdown, but they might not be for you. Perhaps what you’re looking for isn’t even to be found in the pages of a book. “I don’t go to books for reassurance and solace,” Cynan Jones told me. “I find that around me in the natural world, and sometimes in a Negroni.”
• Chris Power is the author of Mothers. He is a judge for the BBC national short story award, celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2020. www.bbc.co.uk/NSSA
Six of the best recent short story collections
Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie
Okojie, who is also judging this year’s NSSA, has an extraordinary imagination: from time-travelling monks to Ballardian islands, these stories show you things you’ll have never seen before.
A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason
Mason’s set of fanciful, absorbing historical tales includes fictional versions of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the pharaoh Psammetichus I, as well as balloonists, pugilists and madmen.
Lot by Bryan Washington
This beautifully written debut collection of interconnected stories, which recently won the Dylan Thomas prize, follows a cast of young queer people of colour through the neighbourhoods of Houston, Texas.
The Voice in My Ear by Frances Leviston
Another brilliant debut, Leviston’s stories – each of which feature a different girl or woman called Claire – use technology, needlework, sex and horror to uncover the fractures that run through family life.
The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan
Unusually skilled at compression, Scanlan writes short short stories that are often just a page or so long. She can make a sentence do the work of a page.
Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg
Eisenberg might work slowly – this is her fifth collection of stories in 35 years – but her stories are close to faultless: hilarious, ingenious, singular. She deserves to be much, much better known.
Ten of the best short stories ever written
“The Dead” by James Joyce
Over the course of a single Dublin evening Joyce presents a devastating portrait of the fragile male ego. The closing lines are some of the most famous in English literature.
“Emergency” by Denis Johnson
Two drug-addled hospital orderlies stumble out of work, go for a drive and get lost in the woods. A line-by-line wonder that’s both funny and profound.
“The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield
Mansfield’s story of a poor carter’s death on the day of a wealthy family’s garden party was never dated, but during the pandemic, when Covid-19 deaths continue amid pub reopenings, it feels freshly and disturbingly relevant.
“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s story describes two estranged brothers reconnecting in 1950s Harlem. Their experience gives a grim account of the black American life but moves towards the light in its unforgettable final scene.
“Gusev” by Anton Chekhov
The least characteristic of Chekhov’s masterpieces, “Gusev” describes the feverish last days of a soldier sailing home to Russia and contains one of the most extraordinary portrayals of death in literature.
“The True Story of Ah Q” by Lu Xun
This satirical, picaresque and ultimately bleak story describes the misadventures of the everyman Ah Q, whose triumphs always transform into defeats.
“Where is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty
Told from the point of view of a racist killer, this story was written in the immediate aftermath of the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Welty said that “anger lit the fuse” of her story, which seems to seethe on the page.
“Fits” by Alice Munro
In 1982 Munro wrote: “Every final draft, every published story, is still only an attempt, an approach, to the story.” “Fits” embodies this belief, as a small town’s inhabitants concoct their own explanations for a murder-suicide that happened in their midst.
“Looking for a Rain God” by Bessie Head
Head’s stories, based on interviews she conducted with the villagers of Serowe, Botswana, are like elaborated folktales: the original story, in this case about a terrible drought, is overlaid with a sense of irony, knowledge of history and taste for enigma.
“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter
In her collection The Bloody Chamber, Carter updated folktales, bringing their “latent content” to the surface to expose their patriarchal assumptions and misogyny. “The Company of Wolves” is her memorable “revisioning” of “Little Red Riding Hood”.