YOSS Guide for Novices

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Even before a passionate group of writers and readers declared 2011 the Year of the Short Story (YOSS), Canadian short stories had been enjoying some time back in the spotlight. Sarah Selecky’s This Cake is for the Party and Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting were both much celebrated and made the Giller Prize shortlist last year, and Katrina Best’s Bird Eat Bird won Best First Book for the Canada/Caribbean Section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Online initiatives like Joyland and Found Press are giving short stories new life online.

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And now the YOSS itself has delivered some remarkable new short story collections, all of this an absolute boon for those readers devoted to the form, and has surely also brought about a few converts. But there remain those readers upon whom all the celebration is lost, those who’ve tried and failed to get into story collections before, and who still aren’t just sure what they’re missing.

All this YOSS-ifying doesn’t change the fact that the short story is a tricky beast, and that the reader has to know how to handle it right (or how to be handled by it). So it is to that end that we’ve compiled the Canadian Bookshelf YOSS Guide for Novices, followed by some great recommendations by short story pros.

  1. The short story’s portability is an illusion. A novel can be read in stops and starts, but a short story usually demands undivided attention for its length, and it’s rare that a story’s length and the time you have to read it agrees exactly. Moreover, short stories often demand to be read more than once. However, understanding that short stories demand to be read more than once is a great way to begin to truly appreciate them. Usually, the story that baffled you the first time around will offer new surprises when you encounter it again.
  2. “The Short Story” comprises tiny and huge stories, experimental and straightforward stories, literary and genre stories, great stories and really bad stories, and a lot of other stories not yet noted. There is actually no such thing as “The Short Story”. If you don’t like one kind, try another, but don’t write off short stories altogether.
  3. Short stories may not be portable, but they make good economic sense. For the price of a novel, a short story collection will give you many more times the story (along with plot, characterization, emotion, humour, dialogue, wordplay).
  4. You don’t have to like every story in a collection—some will always be stronger than others...
  5. ...And this kind of a difference is a great way to begin to answer the question of how to talk about short story collections. Why do some stories work better than others? How is the writer’s approach similar? What appear to be this author’s preoccupations? Are these stories linked, and how do the links enhance the stories? Do these stories work well as a collection or would they read better singularly?
  6. Acknowledge that stories can be read singularly—the collection is usually just the packaging. Pick up the book from time to time and read a story or two, in any order you choose. This way, you can make short stories fit your own life (and perhaps you’ll read with more patience when you’re not expecting them to be novels).
  7. A short story collection is not a novel. Understanding how a story is not a novel is a great entry point for beginning to understand what short stories are. Writer Rebecca Rosenblum suggests that the YOSS novice might start by reading Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?, which functions enough like a novel that the reader won’t be in territory that’s so unfamiliar. The reader can then try to understand how and why Munro’s book is not a novel—what does the short story form accomplish that the novel wouldn’t be able to do?
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As a great book for short story readers just starting out, Rosenblum (Once and the upcoming The Big Dream) also suggests Andrew Pyper’s short story collection Kiss Me, which features the great writing and riveting plots that Pyper has since become so well known for in his novels. Along similar lines, Sarah Selecky suggests Russell Smith’s Young Men.

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Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) goes with something a bit more challenging when she recommends Oxygen by Annabel Lyon, but notes that it was one of the first collections that she found utterly absorbing. Julie Booker (Up, Up, Up) also goes for the tricky route with Lisa Moore’s Open, but notes that the reader cannot helped but be drawn by Moore’s “sharp, clipped style.”

Amy Jones (What Boys Like) recommends We So Seldom Look on Love by Barbara Gowdy (which she refers to as her first love). And Carolyn Black (The Odious Child) notes two books to start with: The Sherpa and Other Fictions by Nila Gupta, and the forthcoming collection The Reverse Cowgirl by David Whitton.

What was your introduction to short story love? Tweet us your responses @cdnbookshelf with the #YOSS hashtag.

July 13, 2011
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