Something literary

I've been thinking about A.S. Byatt recently. First, because Laura read Possession recently, and second, because at dinner the other day we had a great conversation with the kids about how best to phrase your wishes when you free a genie.

I didn't like Possession when I read it several years ago. I found it so . . . cold. I didn't care about any of the characters. I never felt engaged in it, never lost myself in it. I wondered if perhaps the author wrote it merely as a technical exercise.

On the other hand, I adored The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. It's a collection of fabulous short stories (and I mean fabulous in the original sense: resembling fables). They truly are fairy tales for grownups, and they're luscious. Especially the wishes.

I didn't expect to like Djinn as much as I did. Aside from the fact that I didn't like Possession, I generally don't enjoy short stories as much as big, meaty novels. (Science fiction is a huge exception, but that's a subject for another post.) Why? What's the problem with short stories?

I have a theory. One of the problems I have with short stories, I think, is that unless it's the last story in the book, I don't know when it's going to end. With a novel, whether I think about it or not, I sense its overall structure by the size of the book, by the thickness of the stack of remaining pages. I know when I'm halfway through or almost there. When I watch a movie, I like to know in advance how long it is, and I often find myself checking the time not because I'm bored but because I need to know "where I am" in the story. Is this just because I'm an INTJ, or do you feel that way too?

Back to A.S. Byatt. Since I had equally strong but opposite feelings about the two I read, I thought I ought to give her one more try. I found her Little Black Book of Stories at the library the other day, and I'm giving it a try. I'm still in the middle of the first story, but so far so good. I'll report back when I've finished it.


  • I couldn't finish Possession, though I mean to try again. I just didn't get it. It seems like a book written only for those with a PhD in English literature. That's fine, but how about throwing a bone to us mere mortals once in a while? I think, like you say, I just couldn't tell where the story was going (or if it was going). I think it is INTJ-like to want a beginning, middle, and end. Maybe that's not reality but we like it anyway!

    posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7:53 PM  

  • I started Possession once, couldn't get into it, started it again later and absolutely fell in love with it. I had read A.S. Byatt before-- the first book of hers I came across was Still Life (which I didn't realize was the middle book of a trilogy). It really affected me, and I went out of my way to track down as much of her work as I could.

    I'm a sucker for long, messy, meaty novels (anyone care for Underworld? Infinite Jest?), but I also love short stories, and I don't generally feel the need to know where I am in a story. However, I think I am INTP. Never sure, because that's supposed to correspond with introvert thinking, and I'm definitely no question introvert intuitive. I also love science fiction, which I think is realted to the intuitive/thinking combo.

    posted by Anonymous martha on 2:01 PM  

  • I don't like short stories, or at least collections of stories, primarily because after I have finished reading them I have only the vaguest recollection of any given one. And in a few days, POOF!, it's like I've never read them at all. One recent exception: several of the stories in Annie Proulx's Close Range collection are still so vivid in my mind, 3 or so years after I read them.

    I do better with stories that are organized around a single theme, or feature the same characters in each one.

    posted by Blogger Suzanne on 8:32 PM  

  • I often like short stories, but I do like to know where the end is.

    Of course, I have the problem of accidentally peeking at the last page. That makes it rough to be surprised in the story.

    Honestly, I'd be better off if I had to send away for the end of the story by mail so that I don't read it in advance :)

    posted by Blogger Running2Ks on 10:09 PM  

  • I had the same reaction to Possession that you did...and for that reason avoided Djinn (though I did look up the word!). I like short fiction so I'll definitely give it a try, based on your recommendation.

    posted by Blogger doulicia on 10:09 PM  

  • I agree with you that Possession was "cold." I've enjoyed Byatt's short stories, but like Suzanne, I don't remember short stories once I'm done with them — they're just not big enough to leave any imprint on me.

    I thought Babel Tower FAR superior to Possession. Have you read it? Not cold, and definitely meaty.

    posted by Blogger Isabella on 10:19 AM  

  • I dislike short stories for a totally different reason. I read as an escape and a short story is like haveing the vacation over about the time I get everything packed into the car. Just as I start enjoying the characters they're gone. Sometimes thats a blessing but usually its not.

    The Lumpy

    posted by Blogger Lesser_Lumpkin on 1:57 PM  

  • I've not read any of these. Before you "knew" me I truly read several books/wk. I'm still enjoying living vicariously through your blog. I started two book this wk and abandoned both for lack of interest. Perhaps, I've become choosier? I'm making a mental note to bring the blog recommended booklist to the library.
    ( I agree with you about short stories. There are exceptions like superb O.Henry and others I'm too sleepy to recall.)

    Oh, the biography of E.E. Cummnings came into the library. Hubba will pick it up for me.

    posted by Anonymous SilverMoon on 12:55 AM  

  • Sylvia, don't bother trying Possession again. Life is too short. Read Djinn instead.

    Martha, welcome. I wonder what made the difference for you between the first and second attempt? I'm a sucker for long, messy, meaty, too, though Infinite Jest isn't my style. But I know a lot of people loved it.

    Suzanne, exactly! POOF! Are you thinking of any collections in particular that are organized around a theme?

    Running, I sometimes do that by accident. Whenever I start a book I always check first for a Note on the Type. So I look at the back page, and I try to squint so I won't see something I shouldn't. Jeez, I probably should have listed this in that idiosyncrasies meme. I also check copyright info, dedication, acknowledgments, etc., before starting in.

    Doulicia, Djinn is SO different from Possession it's hard to believe they're written by the same person. You'd love it.

    Isabella, nope, but I'll put it on my list. I think a little goes a long way with her, so I may wait a while.

    Lumpy, did you know that Chewbacca has a son named Lumpy? (Yes, I have a 9yo son.) Back to the topic: good analogy. I agree totally.

    Gel, be choosy. Life is too short. I used to feel I had to finish every book I started. No longer!

    posted by Blogger Julie on 4:39 PM  

  • Did I say whether I liked Possession or not? I got really into it in a couldn't put it down way, but you're right, it was really detached in many parts. I actually skimmed pretty frequently, which I almost never do. And I am not feeling very inclined to read more of her books. But I was so fascinated by what she was doing--maybe it was the literary exercise aspect of it that intrigued me. And, of course, that other stuff I was talking about.

    I usually have to force myself to read short stories, but for the opposite reason: they're too short. I hate it when I become attached to them just in time for them to end. I like LONG novels.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 12:56 AM  

  • I didn't like Possession much either. The sychophants at Time magazine did though. Somebody explain that.

    posted by Blogger Quillhill on 8:13 PM  

  • I love short stories. I read a lot of them and it's also the form in which I usually write fiction. So it makes me sad to hear that so many devoted readers aren't keen on them. I do agree that short stories aren't the right choice when one feels the need to escape though. In that mood I choose a big, sprawling novel every time. For those who like linked collections of short stories, I recommend A Bird in the House by Margaret Laurence; Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro (published under the title The Beggar Maid in the U.S.); and, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank. Each is an excellent collection that traces the life of one character throughout.

    posted by Blogger Kate S. on 9:06 PM  

  • Laura, I have a hard time getting attached in the first place, because I know they're just going to end. Soon. For the same reason I have a hard time making friends with someone who's only in town because they're in grad school or on sabbatical.

    Quill, welcome. If you're talking about that list of 10 books from a week or so ago, yeah, it was mighty weird. About the only one I agreed with was The Sotweed Factor.

    Thanks for the recommendations, Kate! It's funny, now that I think about it, but I've never tried to write short stories, either. Just novels. Novels that never came to anything, but still. When I get the creative urge I always start optimistically with "Chapter One" at the top of the page. :)

    posted by Blogger Julie on 9:41 PM