I have a foolish aversion to short stories. I’m perplexed about its origins. It may stem from the fact that my time chipping away at an undergraduate English major forever associated the form with the toil of assigned text. (I swear “Hills Like White Elephants” was on the syllabus of every third class I took.) I also worry that I have some strange, snobbish guilt that triggers a lurking, unshakable sense that I should be working on a weightier novel when I’m reading a short story, under the so-many-books-so-little-time provision of life as a consumer of written fiction.
Ann Beattie is one of the writers who decisively demonstrates the shortsightedness of my knee-jerk rejection of the form. Although she’s written enough novels to take of a sizable portion of a shelf, it’s her short stories that totally transfix. They are about incident more than plot, the rippling of emotion more than the shock of the unexpected twist. Beattie captures people moving through mundane lives and illuminates the triumph and heartbreak of simply existing. I don’t know that I could recount the specific happenings of any of her stories, rattling off the details the link into one another. But I can easily recapture the feel of reading them, mostly informed by the sense I’m eavesdropping on individuals who have entire histories I will never know and futures I won’t see.
In her attentiveness to the intricacies of life — the moments that can easily be overlooked but often perplexingly stick in the memory more firmly that the grander tumult — Beattie reminds me of Anne Tyler, the first author who taught me that a story doesn’t need to have a big, obvious hook to be important and meaningful, that fiction’s strength is less in its invention than in its truthfulness. Beattie reminds me that it doesn’t take pages upon pages upon pages to achieve that honesty. Sometimes a few words will do.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.