I must confess, I once bought a book from Amazon by one of my favourite authors and was devastated when it turned out to be short stories (those descriptions can be misleading… or I’m an impulsive buyer). The book sat on my bedside locker for months, until I felt too guilty to buy a new book and had to read it.
I didn’t hate it. In fact, I really rather enjoyed it. And this prompted me to wonder why I was so prejudiced against short stories.
Partly this might be to do with my love of narrative-driven books. I think most people are partial to a book which paces along, keeping us entertained and engaged throughout. I have a particular love for very very long books, where I genuinely miss the characters after (although I dislike going into unintended mourning of a book – those weeks where I pick up and unfinish three or four books after a particularly wonderful tome and can’t find anything to match it fill me with despair). One of my best friends told me at during our A-level English course, after a particularly heady close-analysis lesson: “I just love the story. Isn’t that enough?”
So I think what it boils down to is that, for me, short stories are simply too much work. They are the step between reading a novel and a poem; the former you can absorb in a state of near passivity; the latter you are required to read again and again, pencil in hand, annotating all the way (who studied English Literature at university and manages to read poetry without a pencil? Please teach me how).
If poetry is “language condensed”, then short stories are very nearly there. The ideas, themes, character and language are all the more pertinent and powerful for the shortness of the tale. The structural issues you only glancingly pay attention to when reading a novel begin to jump out at you with force in a short story. It just all seems too deep.
And that is exactly why, as a teacher, I need to read many more short stories. These entities are clearly made for teaching: we all know the perils of a class reader, particularly with our less engaged students. (I’ll allow myself one more digression: in my first term of teaching, I pretty much read the whole of “To Kill a Mockingbird” to my year 10 set 5. They hated it so much that when I finished the last sentence they burst into spontaneous applause, not because I am a wonderful and amazing reader, but because, in their own words: “thank God IT’S OVER.”) (I will also say that I have since gained the experience, skills and pedagogical understanding to be able to effectively teach novels. So please don’t fire me.)
I began teaching short stories with year 9 set 2 three years ago. This was an incredibly able class; they are the year 11 I have so often raved about to my close friends this year, and I’m banking on a host of A*s on results day. I wanted them to experience more of literature than just one novel; I wanted to explore different authors, genres and times with them.
We began with Raymond Carver’s “Fat”, which is made for teaching to girls. The way Carver “shows not tells” us about the characters, the subject matter (if you haven’t read it, the clue is in the title) of the tale, the sparse but beautifully chosen language and the length (it is maybe 5 pages long) all allow an engaging and edifying approach to the unit.
My year 9s also read Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, James Joyce’s “The Dead” and “Eveline” and J. D. Salinger’s “Franny”. I have taught none of these since, despite utterly loving teaching them, mainly because I’ve found different short stories which seemed better suited to my various classes – not in terms of ability, but more in terms of interest. There is too much to choose from the great literature that is available to wheel out the same stories year on year. I especially loved reading “The Second Bakery Attack” by Murakami for a “fun” (read: non-directly related to the curriculum) lesson with year 12. Another favourite of mine is “Examination Day” by Henry Slesar: a great text for a KS3 class, introducing them to dystopian literature.
In short, short stories are an English teacher’s best friend. They are ready-made for any class; clearly shorter and so more digestible for less confident readers, but open to a challenging scheme of work containing multiple ones for the most confident students.
I’ll admit, though, I’m taking a fat novel or six to the beach. It can’t all be about the kids…