Too Busy for a Novel? Read These Short Stories Instead

Erica Plouffe Lazure, author of "Proof of Me," pairs books with short fiction

Painting of a woman reading a book
Study in a Wood (1861) by Daniel Huntington via The Met Public Domain.

One of the central questions I had when shaping my story collection, Proof of Me, was how to invite into it a unified feel, how to place each story to be in conversation—geographically, thematically, linearly—with what follows. I also sought for each story to stand on its own, offering a microcosmic glimpse into the lives and experiences of my characters, feeling the fullness of their stubbornness, shortcomings, and unrequited bids for redemption. Thus, once each story found its narrative footing, the big-picture connective tissue that often drives novels—the sense of sequence and pacing, the curiosity factor of “what happens next” often surfaced in my own efforts to revise and craft this collection, especially as the themes of the different sections, and the story arcs of the Weaver sisters, Cassidy Penelope Turner, and Sissy Saunders (the infamous Shad Queen), emerged. 

So it got me thinking about the relationship between short stories and novels, and the way writers draw from similar patterns and themes in both short and long forms. How does a sense of place, or a magical element, or social commentary, or a character’s motives emerge not only in a compact story, but also over the course of a lengthy novel? How do these elements both introduce and sustain themselves in short and long forms? What can writers learn from short stories to parachute into a specific voice and perspective, and yet find connection and continuity within an ever-advancing storyline found in the novel?

Perhaps these paired titles below might not only help a writer to begin to answer these questions, but also cross-pollinate our reading list and convince both short story writers and novelists alike that there’s a story (or novel) worth digging into. 

If you loved White Teeth by Zadie Smith:

Read “Flor” in Recommended Reading by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Julia Sanches

Offering a rich backdrop of the patterns and complexities in the neighborhoods where Smith’s Irie and Polesso’s narrator live, White Teeth and “Flor” call attention to how their young narrators’ curiosities tease out the biases embedded in their respective communities, whether in Willesden Green, London, or in a tiny, close-knit village near Campo Bom, Brazil. Remaining squarely in the narrative voices of their characters, each author embeds their storytelling with social commentary about sexuality and bigotry, and how children both learn from and challenge long-held assumptions made by people they love and trust. While Smith’s longer form enables her to explore these themes through an entire cast of characters, timeframes, and locations, Polesso’s succinct story encapsulates the various voices and flavors of this Brazilian community, from dancing daily to Xuxa, or conveying the complex dimensions of its residents, and making good use of its reliably faulty power transformer that signals, with pitch-perfect timing, the transformative power of innocence.

If you loved Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston:

Read “How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell about It (Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949)” in The Missouri Review by Kim Coleman Foote

The energy and antagonism in Foote’s storytelling as she recounts a story of a gaggle of young cousins’ efforts to “kill” their grandmother feels reminiscent of a story Janie Crawford Starks herself might have heard (or told) sitting on the porch of her second husband’s general store. Foote, whose creative work melds family legend, regional history, and her own imagination, steps right into the mindset of her child narrators as they plot to chop off their grandmother’s “good” hair and recount with building frustration each of their foiled plots. Like Hurston, Foote’s style mixes weighted, gorgeous prose (“The silence is thick enough to step on”) with an ear that knows how to capture the bounce and phrase of the spoken word.

If you loved The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht:

Read “The Bad Graft” in The New Yorker by Karen Russell

In both The Tiger’s Wife and “The Bad Graft,” a bit of magical intrigue entangles the protagonists of an otherwise ordinary road trip, taking each of them on journeys that metaphorically and literally encompass their whole being. In The Tiger’s Wife, Natalia’s search for her grandfather’s belongings in the Balkan countryside transforms her from a hard-nosed skeptic into a believer in the supernatural, whereas in “The Bad Graft,” Angela and her boyfriend’s vacation to Joshua Tree leaves them with an unexpected souvenir. An intriguing narrative “shift” into the consciousness of tigers and plants, respectively, incorporates a mythic and magical realism element amid these already rich landscapes and storylines.

If you loved Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward:

Read “Strays” in Esquire by Mark Richard

Set in the deep South, and under the influence of an ever-present ghost of William Faulkner, both tales give voice to the stark challenges of siblings growing up in poverty, with an added element of overlapping personal and natural disaster, absent mothers, hapless caretakers, and the care and neglect of (sometimes wild) dogs. Both told from the perspectives of a perceptive child, Salvage the Bones and “Strays” offer up a strong sense of place and the musical twang of local voices, and transport the reader into a time and space where growing up fast is just a part of life, and required for survival.

If you loved The Plover by Brian Doyle:

Read “The Shell Collector” by Anthony Doerr

Anyone who loves the solitude of the sea and shoreline, the stories of those who live there, and a bit of magic shot through for good measure, would fall in love with both The Plover and “The Shell Collector.” The narrators in both stories draw from the gifts of the sea—its shells, its brine, its inhabitants—to find in them both harm and healing. Beautifully rich storytelling offers the message that nature’s beauty is as potent as its poisons, and their Hemingway-esque narrators eventually learn that any effort to find escape from the past in the ocean’s salty waters will inevitably receive its comeuppance. 

If you loved Exit West by Mohsin Hamid:

Read “The Other Man” in The Refugees by Viet Tanh Nguyen

Set in San Francisco, Nguyen’s story “The Other Man” could easily serve as yet another of Hamid’s nameless characters in Exit West, as he zeroes in on one of many voices and eras embodying the refugee experience. One might imagine that the magical “doors” that frame Hamid’s novel transport the reader into an apartment of Nguyen’s design, where (just like Nadia and Saeed of Exit West) the possibilities of reinvention, of economic stability, of finding love (or something like it) in this city are all within reach. 

If you loved Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:

Read “Paraguay” in The New Yorker by Donald Barthelme

Steeped in the fabulist tradition and embracing the modular story form, both Calvino and Barthelme’s respective efforts craft a “guided tour” through an imagined landscape, borrowing from travelogues, geographical terrain, historical facts and documents, and the peculiarities of the human condition to convey a strong sense of what makes a place unique. Calvino’s novel especially invites a consideration of how folkways, values, and cultural norms of a specific place are part and parcel of its geography, and Barthelme, in a clear homage to Calvino, emulates this sentiment on a much smaller scale.

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