Why are short stories great?

Community Administrator and Content Manager Jo Opoku explores the benefits of reading short stories and discovers three ways in which they are an excellent alternative to reading a novel.

When tasked with writing a blogpost entitled "Why are short stories great?" I really had to think about it. The truth is, I haven’t read that many short stories in my life. I remember reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman at school. It was good, but I wasn’t particularly enthralled at that age. Given its topic is women’s mental health, it would probably be an interesting one to read again now as an adult.

Other than that, no short stories from the past seem to have stuck in my mind. I love to read, but I always read novels and non-fiction books. Something about short stories hasn’t appealed to date. Perhaps it’s because I like nothing better than getting stuck into a really good book, ideally one that goes on for a good while and that I don’t want to end. I recently read ‘Troubled Blood’ by Robert Galbraith on my Kindle and at one point was delighted to see although I felt I was a good way into the story, I was in fact only about 20% of the way through.

But, I’m rapidly changing my mind. In exploring what benefits there might be in reading short stories, I’m starting to wonder why I haven’t delved into them sooner. Here are three reasons why I think short stories are great.

Ideal for short attention spans

It appears that a lot of people struggled to read during the Covid-19 lockdowns and the pandemic in general. Our attention spans seem to have shortened. On the whole we’ve been distracted, constantly checking on news updates, taking part in Zoom calls, binge watching TV and films. But somehow a lot of people just haven’t had the bandwidth to pick up a novel and get stuck in.

“People spent more time reading and seeking escape, but an inability to concentrate meant they made less progress than usual. In short, people spent more time reading but the volume they read was less.”
The Conversation

I’ve heard a few people on podcasts saying that short stories were a lifesaver during lockdown - the length made reading less of a commitment. You could get through a story or two in one sitting. During a time where we all felt we had little control over anything, they could complete reading a story and feel a sense of accomplishment.

And having a short attention span is not just a reaction to the pandemic. Most of us have a general feeling of unease about how easily distracted we can be, what with constant notifications, multiple ways in which to ‘connect’, a non-stop feed of news and content at our fingertips at all times.

Generation Z, people born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2010s, apparently exhibit shorter attention spans when it comes to online learning, for example. A University of Rochester study revealed that “Gen Z students have an optimal learning experience when a video is six minutes or shorter. Students display signs of disengagement as they reach the nine-minute mark."

So in helping students who are struggling with their reading, perhaps introducing short stories, and reading in bite-sized chunks, is the way forward.

Discover new authors and genres

Working on ReadingWise’s Short Stories Comprehension pack during the past year resulted in me reading a few short stories. While I’ve enjoyed them all, the standouts for me are ‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London and ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson.

I loved the vivid description of the landscape in To Build a Fire, and the sense of futility of the man’s situation. I loved the grimness of The Lottery, the shocking ending which I still genuinely find shocking just thinking about it. It brings to mind the recent TV series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 'A Handmaid’s Tale'. (A side note, when The Lottery was first published in the 25 June 1948 issue of The New Yorker, it so appalled readers at the time that subscriptions were cancelled and hate mail was sent in to the publication - "the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction").

Both are beautifully written stories, with significantly fewer words than the novels I’m used to reading. They were visual, diverting, and made me think. It was brilliant to discover new writing I liked, and I’ll search out further short stories or novels written by these two writers.

A sense of achievement and completion

In writing this blogpost I’ve had a revelation. I’ve been learning Spanish for a while now, and I’ve read a few books in Spanish, nearly always translations of books by English or American writers. Some I’ve enjoyed, others I’ve struggled with. The enormity of getting through a whole book where you might not know all the words, idioms or cultural significance can be overwhelming. It’s great when you’re in the flow but for the most part you’re also studying - looking words up, checking you understand the real meaning, considering what tense is being used.

It's given me a little bit of insight into what it might be like to struggle with reading in general. It’s a real effort. Getting through a page might give you a sense of pride, and achievement. But some days it seems pointless, that you’re not improving, that it’s too hard.

I’ve realised that reading short stories might be the way forward. That sense of accomplishment is so important when learning anything. With short stories I can explore new settings, new characters, a new tone and subject matter, without having to invest too heavily. If a story doesn’t seem to be my cup of tea, I’ll get to the end soon. I won’t have to suffer the feeling of dejection or failure at giving up. Or keeping trawling through, struggling.

Now, just as I can binge on a boxset I’ve fallen for, or on a few chapters of a novel, perhaps I’ll be tempted to binge on a few short stories. The benefits are clear.

Which short stories have you enjoyed?


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