For me, as for many people, reading fiction usually means reading novels. Writers have a tendency to think of short stories as “practice” for longer works; and many readers, I think, associate short stories with either high-brow literary magazines or the mid-century American fiction read in high school literature classes. However, the past few years have seen a kind of rebirth of the short story—walk into any bookstore and you’ll see recent short story collections displayed prominently, and just a few months ago Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” went viral after being published by The New Yorker.
In recent months, I’ve found myself reading more and more short fiction, too. Short story collections, I’ve found, fit the rhythm of my day nicely. I tend to read while commuting, and I can usually finish a story or two on one journey. If you don’t want to commit to a 250-page novel, a short story collection gives you the freedom of reading a story, putting down the book, and then returning to it days or weeks later.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading:
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
By the time I got my hands on a (signed!) copy of Her Body and Other Parties, I’d been eagerly awaiting the book’s release for several years. The first short story in Her Body and Other Parties, “The Husband Stitch” was originally published in Granta in October 2014, and when I read it, I sent it to my best friend in an email full of exclamation points. The story is beautifully written, haunting, and emotionally astute. Her Body and Other Parties was nominated for a National Book Award, and I’ve seen Machado compared many times to Shirley Jackson, another master of the short story form. I think characterization is, in many ways fitting—like Jackson, Machado uses elements of the supernatural to write about women and their experiences, but Machado’s writing delves much more frankly into sex and sexuality than any of Jackson’s short stories that I’ve read. In many interviews, Machado is asked about her approach to writing about sex, or if she considers her stories erotic. While sex is certainly an important element of many of Machado’s stories, I think it would be tragically reductionist to consider the collection a work of erotica. Machado never presents sex voyeuristically; the sex scenes are sometimes sexy, but they are not there to arouse the readers. Rather, the sex scenes give us a deeper understanding of the characters and their relationships. My current favorite in the collection is “Inventory,” in which a woman’s memories of past lovers give shape to a futuristic story of biological apocalypse. On my first reading of the collection, I found some stories easier to digest and understand than others. Perhaps because I’ve never watched SVU, I found it difficult to make sense of the novella Especially Heinous, which spins a ghost story out of characters and circumstances taken from the show. However, I’m certain that it will reward re-reading, and I’m looking forward to returning to the collection in months and years to come.
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
After discovering Jeffrey Eugenides during my sophomore year of college, I read The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides, and Middlesex in a matter of months. I adored The Marriage Plot in particular, and when I picked up Fresh Complaint at the library a few weeks ago, I assumed it too was a novel. In fact, the book is a short story collection. Some were written as recently as 2017; others as early as the mid-1990s. Some of the older short stories feel more than a bit cringe-worthy given changing social mores—”Baster,” in which the narrator secretly swaps his own sperm for the sample his friend intends to use to get pregnant, is one of these. But I was touched by “Complainers,” which charts a friendship between two aging women, one of whom has dementia; and I enjoyed “Airmail,” which gave me a chance to revisit Mitchell Grammaticus, a character from The Marriage Plot, on a beach in Bali. Still, Fresh Complaint left me slightly disappointed; Eugenides might have done better to leave some of his older stories in the drawer.
Also on my list of short story collections to read:
- Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
- Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
- Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay
- The Complete Short Stories by Muriel Spark