I went through a phase years ago when I read a great many short stories, mainly American. I’d like to say this was an in-depth study of this fairly niche genre, but it was just because someone brought me ‘The Best American Short Stories of 1995’ and I became addicted to these annual collections with their pretty coloured covers, guest edited by stellar legends of US Lit. The stories were often good, sometimes brilliant, and they introduced me to some great new names, but to be honest it was the books themselves I liked. Put it this way, I have about 24 of them and I have read say 7 or 8.
A good short story is a great thing. So I thought, in these times when a large number of us are probably reading a bit more than average, due to being locked away through fear, reasonably enough, of a deadly disease it might do to suggest some short stories to read. These are all great.
Firstly, there are three geniuses of the form to mention, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Flannery O’ Connor. For Carver, you could read anything, but I’m suggesting ‘What Do You Do in San Francisco?’ from his collection ‘Would You Please Be Quiet, Please?’. Carver is completely unique, and will be regarded, centuries hence, I think, as an authentic chronicler of American life in his time,
I first read this story in a minibus on a long journey in Massachusetts during an Operation Friendship trip, when I was leading a group of young people. I was in the front seat with the driver, and as I reached the end of the story I was quite upset. A very clever boy called Alexander Hannay was sitting behind me, and asked if he could read it, and when he had, he said he didn’t really see why anyone would be upset by it. See what you think; I think probably you have to be of a certain age.
Carver and Ford were very close friends. I met them both in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh on June 9th 1987, where they were doing a reading on a dreich night, which compounded the fact that a misunderstanding had arisen as to which night they were supposed to be there. In the audience there were 12 of us, I kid you not.
Richard Ford was a very very good-looking man – he may still be – with a deep velvety voice, and he read the whole of his story ‘Great Falls’ which is in his collection ‘Rock Springs’. It begins with the lines ‘This is not a happy story. I warn you.’ It is a long story, so we sat there for 40 minutes or so, then Carver read some poetry. Carver, unlike his friend, was a rather peculiar looking man, who by this time – he died the following year – was very unwell, lacking, I think, one lung and some of his stomach. He was immensely warm, shy, with a little husky almost cartoonish voice, and he stood and spoke to me for ten minutes. He was already a hero of mine. So Carver and Ford go together in my mind, as they did so much of the time. After Carver died, Ford wrote a wee book about him called ‘Good Raymond’ which gives a good account.
So try these two. And everyone should also read, at some point in their lives, the title story of Flannery O’Connor’s collection, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. As well as having, as its title, a self-evident truth, this story is just perfect. She said:
‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is’.
And this story demonstrates just that.
Flannery O’ Connor, who died in 1964, aged 39, had been chronically ill with lupus throughout her life and she was the subject of my honours dissertation at university. I chose her, not because of any previous in-depth study, but because she didn’t write very much – two novels, two books of stories, lots of letters and some essays. In the summer of 1978, I worked as a night watchman at a whisky bond in Leith, a great job about which there is much to say which will eventually be said. It didn’t involve doing anything really, so during these lovely long evenings I sat in the watchman’s hut, with Jimmy Cowan or Bob Edmonds or Tam Dolan, and I read everything Flannery wrote, and most of the things that were written about her. And then I wrote my dissertation. Every so often I come back to her work and, had it not been for this f*****g virus, we would have been visiting her home, in Milledgeville, Georgia in June. Well, that will have to wait, but you should not wait to read this funny, profound, moving story, combining as it does O’Connor’s staunchly Catholic beliefs with a grim black view of humanity…or maybe those are the same thing.
And two or three other American stories. John Updike – another great artist of whom it must be said ‘times were different’ and a story called ‘Friends from Philadelphia’; really anything by Tobias Wolff but certainly ‘Hunters in the Snow’ and ‘The Rich Brother’ in which, as in so much of Flannery O’Connor’s work, people get their come-uppance. For something really further down the line stylistically, George Saunders’ collection ‘Tenth of December.’
And finally, a Scottish story, George Mackay Brown’s ‘Celia’. GMB spread out his white paper on the table every morning, having cleared away the breakfast things, and he should have won the Nobel prize. This is a story about love and it’s wonderful.
So, a little random traipse through a few stories, and I hope you can find and read them. Stay safe, and hopefully not too bored.