May 27, 2010
The Short Story and Me
Apparently it’s Short Story Month. I know this because The Afterword and Steven Beattie say so. I think this might be something The Afterword invented, to be honest I haven’t been paying a huge amount of attention because I don’t consider myself a big fan of short stories. But that alone should have been reason enough for me to stick my neck out. If the point is to encourage the reading of short stories, I am the perfect target market – an avid reader who for no particularly good reason avoids the form.
The last two short story collections I read were Joyce’s Dubliners and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, both of which I read for a class on modern literature. Because, I think, of the context, I have no fond memories of either book. And, because they are considered to be two of the finest examples of the short story in the English language, I assumed that since I didn’t really like them, I wouldn’t really like any short stories. This was five years ago – I don’t think I’ve read a short story since.
But it wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid – 11, 12 years old – I had subscriptions to Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I read The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror every year from 1990-1998. For years I felt Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s collections of “adult fairy tales” (from Snow White, Rose Red through Black Heart, Ivory Bones) were the reading highlight of my year. And Charles de Lint’s first collection of Newford stories, Dreams Underfoot, was probably responsible for changing my life.
I know, that’s sad from a literary standpoint. Some teens latch on to Holden Caulfield or Jack Kerouac or Nietzsche; not me. I was living in a small down up the Ottawa Valley, hating every minute of my life there. I didn’t have the patience or the focus to channel my frustration into anything useful, but I did have a grab-bag of strange and various talents, and a vivid imagination. In de Lint’s stories I met folkies and artists and buskers who were living, as far as my 16-year-old self was concerned, the perfect life. I was already a talented violinist, so I decided to take up fiddling, and jumped ship to Toronto at my earliest convenience. I wasn’t quite done high school and I didn’t have anywhere to live, but I was determined to find the community of like-minded de-Lint-ian vagabonds who would, I was sure, be my best friends forever.
Suffice to say it didn’t end up quite like that. Still, Dreams Underfoot moved me to Toronto and motivated me to have some of my more memorable adventures. Once the busking season ended and winter started making itself known I dabbled in the more indoor – but nevertheless de Lint-inspired – career path offered by the University of Toronto’s Celtic Studies program. Failing this I meandered through a similarly inspired and equally brief film career, still determined to find the faery artists of de Lint’s world. Even now, years later, when I muse about the cozy bookshop I’d love to someday own, my mind calls up Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery, a de Lint creation.
This is probably the other reason I’ve shied away from short stories: I’m afraid if I go back to them I’ll find they weren’t nearly as good as I thought they were when I was 14. Looking back at what moved us as young people is bound to be an embarrassing exercise.
This week I thought I’d meet my 14-year-old self half way. Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu is supposed to offer magic and fantasy in the vein of John Crowley, which is to say, with style and skill not often found in genre writing. I did quite like her full-length novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And serendipitously, Ladies of Grace Adieu is illustrated by Charles Vess, who I met earlier this month at TCAF, and who illustrated so many of the Charles de Lint books of my youth. Fate? Anyway the book has been sitting unread on my shelf for four years now. It’s time.