Introduction

I used to have this idea that I didn’t like short stories. It was an ongoing argument in our house; my husband adores them, and would argue for them endlessly, but I was not, I felt, a short-stories person. When I tried to articulate my objections, I tended to come up with an argument along the neither-fish-nor-fowl lines; they provided, I suggested, neither the depth and breadth and heft of novels, nor poetry’s quick, beautiful dance. They occupied instead some sort of provisional hinterland between the two, and I wasn’t interested in visiting. If the city and the country are both on offer, why go to the suburbs?

I was wrong, obviously; in fact, looking back, I’m bemused by the level of my wrongness. The best way I can explain it was that I was looking down the wrong end of the telescope, seeing weakness in strength. The moment of conversion – of revelation, really – came, for me, with Alice Munro’s collection, Runaway (which I’ll talk about in a bit). I read these stories and finally, fully, got it: those spaces which surround and swiss-cheese short stories, which I had perceived as absences, are precisely where their power lies. Novels and poems offer – or offer to me – completion, satisfaction, the sense of something wrapped up and fully realised. They meet needs, and provide answers. Short stories do the opposite: they’re liminal, they’re gestural, they give something but not everything; they leave you wanting more. The best of them require you to fill in the edges, leave you feeling exposed, raw and incomplete. They don’t answer questions; they pose them – and it’s stories that do this which, give or take, I’ve focused on here. Turns out, when it came to short stories, the problem was me. I’ve grown up now. I can cope with unanswered questions.

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