Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How-to-Read Books and New Book on Reading Short Stories

Today, Wednesday, November 16, 2011, is the third anniversary of this blog—“Reading the Short Story.” In that three-year period I have posted over 160 brief essays on various aspects of short story theory and criticism, and on many different short story writers, short story collections, and individual short stories. I hope to continue posting essays at least once a week. But now that I have completed editing work on the new Critical Insights: Alice Munro book, I am itching to begin a new publishing project. Although I am no believer in such things, a few days ago, a newspaper horoscope provided the following Aquarian encouragement:

“You’re not sure you have the energy to dive into a project, but dive you will. You have a feeling that your adrenaline reserves will kick in when you need them most—and you’re right!” Can the stars be wrong?

So, here’s what I have in mind. I have always believed that although the short story is a “natural” form, it is at the same time a form of high “artifice.” That is, although it probably began with the basic human urge to relate something some strange that happened or to illustrate some significant idea, it has a long tradition of developing certain literary conventions that make reading a short story a different experience than reading a novel. In my opinion, the form is not popular because often the general reader, not knowing its conventions of artifice, tries unsuccessfully to read it the same way he or she reads a novel. Furthermore, I have always believed that academic readers—students and teachers alike—have undervalued and largely ignored the form because in their focus on what they consider to be the more complex and comprehensive novel, they do not understand or appreciate how short stories uniquely capture ambiguous human reality.

So what I would like to write is a book that is accessible to the popular reader, acceptable to the professional reader, and meets the approval of the short story writer--a bridge between general readers and academic readers. Based on my forty years of reading, teaching, and writing about the short story, the book would offer suggestions I have found helpful for reading the short story with pleasure and understanding--in short, a “how to” book for readers that would stimulate their interest in the short story—a daunting task. Virginia Woolf opened her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” (Common Reader, Second Series) cautioning that the only advice one person can give another about reading is “to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” She says she aims to put forth a few suggestions about reading, confident that her readers will not allow such suggestions to “fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” However, “to enjoy freedom,” Woolf wisely adds in a final reminder, “we have of course to control ourselves.”

I hope the book I begin to write this week embodies just the right blend of freedom and control to encourage both general and professional readers to read the short story with appreciation and understanding. The first aspect of the book on which I seek the advice of my own readers is what to name it, since titles can either attract or affront. “How to Read a Short Story” seems a bit pretentious and somewhat condescending. “Reading the Short Story,” which is the title of this blog, makes an assumption that there is such a genre as “the” short story, rather than merely lots of stories that happen to be short. “Reading Short Stories” sounds too casual on the one hand or too much like a text anthology on the other. How Does a Short Story Mean?—after John Ciardi’s famous How Does a Poem Mean? sounds a bit too academic. And I sure don’t want to call it, How To Read a Short Story Like a Professor. I would like to create a book for the educated general reader as well as the student and professional reader, which can serve as “A Guide for People Who Love Short Stories and For Those Who Want to Write Them”—to echo Francine Prose subtitle for her Reading Like a Writer.

Over the next several months as I work on this book, I plan to post on this blog my progress and my problems; I sincerely solicit your advice at all stages of its composition. Initially, I ask you to choose on the sidebar poll what you think is the best name for the book.

As a first step in writing such a book, I did a fairly thorough search of other books that suggest “how to read.” Tom Lutz did a helpful survey of such books back in 2007; you can find it at:

Lutz points out that whereas the “how-to-read” genre has been around since Noah Porter published “Books and Reading, or What Books Shall I Read and How Should I Read Them?” in 1871, there is something odd, though, about the latest slough of anti-academic books offering to teach us “how to read, since they are primarily written by academics “But perhaps it is because most of these books are only masquerading as guides to reading. What each really offers is a series of explications of famous passages, much like, well, academic criticism.”

Below is my own list of “how to read” books, most of which you can find also in Lutz’s article. I would like to weave my way through this thicket, making use of the best of them and avoiding, of course, the worse. I am no famous author and thus cannot arouse interest by luxuriating in personal anecdotes and autobiography. I am no high-powered critic who writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times, or The Times Literary Supplement, who can wander with scholarly ease through a wide range of worldly reading. I would like to write a book that aspiring writers and aspiring teachers would find useful, but at the same time, I have no authority to write a “guide for writers” and no desire to put together a standard college textbook.

I do not plan to submit a formal proposal to publishers until I have the book outlined and at least one chapter completed I have no illusions about how difficult it will be to find a publisher who thinks a book on how to read short stories will sell well enough to justify its publication. After all, few publishers think the form generates enough interest to publish books of short stories, unless the author promises a novel. But I plan to write the book anyway. Wish me luck!

How-To-Read Books

Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, 1940. This is a classic book on reading in general. Clifton Fadiman, writing in The New Yorker, said it was the only “self-improvement book” he has ever read that did not make him “want to go out and start improving things by assassinating the author.” That, of course is often the problem with “how-to” books: People are put off by someone daring to suggest that they need to be taught something they already know.

I. A. Richards. How to Read a Page, 1942. Subtitled “a course in efficient reading with an introduction to 100 great works,” the word “efficient” certainly does not suggest speed reading, skimming, or summarizing, but rather what is often discredited now as “close reading” by the great British literary critic and semanticist.

Harold Bloom. How to Read and Why, 2000. One of Bloom’s major arguments about contemporary criticism is that ideology, “particularly in its shallower versions, is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony. And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading.” Irony, says Bloom, “demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise…. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you to blaze forth as the scholar of one candle.”

Thomas C. Foster. How to Read Literature Like a Professor, 2003. Foster argues that the professor of literature has acquired over the years a “language of reading,” a “grammar of literature, a set of conventions, patterns, codes and rules” he or she uses when reading literature. He says that memory, symbol, pattern are the three items that separate the professional reader from the “rest of the crowd” and that what he hopes to do in the book is to “give readers a view of what goes on when professional students of literature do their thing, a broad introduction to the codes and patterns that inform our reading.” Foster is a little too chatty and informal for my tastes. I cringe when he says, “By now I’ve beaten you severely about the head and shoulders with the notion that literature grows out of other literature” or uses the word “natch” as short for naturally.

Caroline Gordon, How to Read a Novel, 1957. Gordon says that since the novel is “different from any other form of art, if we are to become good readers of fiction, we must learn to recognize and in our own minds define this essential difference.” Gordon says up front that her concern is with the “general reader” and that her book is an attempt to answer two questions: “What is a novel?” and “How Should It Be Read?” Gordon includes fairly conventional chapters on setting, point of view, etc.

John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel, 2006. Sutherland complains about information overload, suggesting that there is so much out there that we cannot know what we should read. “How can we identify the 10 percent, or less, of fiction available that is not crap”? Sutherland spends a lot of time talking about modern market techniques and longing for the Victorian good old days. He is genial in a British scholar sort of way, but doesn’t really talk very cogently about what his title promises.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, 2005. Smiley says the most obvious hallmark of novels is length and that the form was invented to be long because “what early novelists wanted to communicate could not be communicated in a shorter or more direct form, and also because length itself is enjoyable.” The characters or the narrator’s voice or the author’s way of thinking becomes something the reader wants to continue to experience. “In a novel, length is always a promise, never a threat.” Smiley also says that the “most important essential characteristic of the novel that arises out of its structure, out of the combination of narrative ad length, is that it is inherently political.” By this, she means that since the reader knows it is highly implausible that a single human mind has no social context, inevitably the subject of any novel “comes to be the coexistence of the protagonist and his group.” Smiley includes chapters on the history of the novel, the psychology of the novel, a case history of her own novel Good Faith, and a brief synopsis and commentary of 100 novels. This is a big book—almost 600 pages—with lots of personal anecdotes.

Nancy C. Millett and Helen J. Throckmorton, How to Read a Short Story, 1969. This is a small textbook in which Millett and Throckmorton, two professors at Wichita State University discuss the basic elements of fiction—theme, character, plot, symbolism, and irony—including stories to illustrate them—Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Chekhov’s “The Wager,” Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Portable Phonograph,” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” For each “element” and each story, they point out what they call “clues” to discovering theme, character, plot, etc.

John Ciardi and Miller Williams, How Does a Poem Mean, 1975. This is a classic textbook anthology that includes a number of poems along with Ciardi’s commentary on them.

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem, 1999. Hirsch makes generalizations about poetry, explicates specific poems, and quotes critiques and writers. He says an exemplary poem teaches you how to read it. However, he laments that so many people have become estranged from the devices and techniques of poetry and poetic thinking that reading poetry is an endangered activity, maybe, he says, because reading itself is endangered in our culture. The book includes a glossary and a list of suggested reading.

James Wood, How Fiction Works, 2008. By fiction, Wood primarily means the novel. However, he redeems himself in my mind by pointing out that two of his favorite twentieth-century critics are the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky and the French formalist-cum-structuralist Roland Barthes. Wood likes these critics because, being formalists, “they thought like writers: they attended to style, to words, to form, to metaphor and imagery.” However, Wood says, unlike Shklovsky and Barthes, he does not wish to present himself as a specialist writing for other specialists. Although he says he hopes to ask theoretical questions he wants to answer them practically.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, 2006. Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences. Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern; it is thus not surprising that she more often cites short stories rather than novels to illustrate stylistic excellence and to explain formal strategies.


Máire T. Robinson said...

Happy blog anniversary! I really enjoy your post and your new book project sounds fascinating. Looking forward to hearing more. Keep up the good work.

Charlene said...

Congrats on three good years and looking forward to many more--and the book!

Unknown said...

Happy blogging Anniversary, Charles!

Looking forward to reading your new book!

I think your "How to read a short story" book should be titled something like..."What?! This is a short story?" or "Wait! I wanted to read a novel!" or "Who wants to read a short story?!"

I hope I don't offend you with the silly titles. I, for one, LOVE short stories (Ray Bradbury...All Summer in a Day is my fav). BUT, I do tend to steer away from "How to" books because they seem a little dry. Since you want to write this book with the intended audience to be the mainstream reader, then maybe a fun title would be appropriate ;-)


Joe Melia said...

Hello Charles,

great news about the book. Would agree with others that the 'how to' is a bit off-putting. What about something along the lines of : 'Getting the Most out of Reading Short Stories' That's a bit clumsy, granted, but something similar might work. Love the idea that you're aiming it at general readers and academics etc. Something with a really broad appeal is very exciting.
Here's to many more years of enjoying your blog!

Anne said...

Hi Charles,
I've been enjoying reading your blog in recent months and am very grateful to you for re-introducing me to the joy of the short story (as both a writer and reader of the "genre").

The book project sounds wonderful. What about "the joy of the short story"? Bit pedestrian perhaps but that's what your blog is all about for me.

Ann Graham said...

Excellent, excellent endeavor! And, maybe your book will spark a short story renaissance among buyers!

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann

Loree Westron said...


I'll look forward to reading your book, whatever its title.

John Mullan used to write a column for The Guardian called 'Elements of Fiction' in which he explored contemporary novels in detail. Each month was devoted to a different novel and each week to a different aspect of that novel: structure, flashbacks, prolepsis, dialogue, etc.

He used the column as the basis for his book HOW NOVELS WORK (2006), which also examines a range of classic novels. The book and column both were aimed at the keen reader, rather than academics, and written in an intelligent, yet accessible style.

A similarly detailed exploration of the short story will be a great asset to readers, writers, students and lecturers alike.

trodbarne said...

My favourite book on this subject is Frank O'Connor's "The Lonely Voice," which while being focused on short stories also seeks to connect them meaningfully. You'll likely come across a theme or something that could work like this as you get further into your material (if you haven't already); so it may be too soon yet to settle on a title.

I've found your writing on this blog already tends towards this approach--I'm thinking of your recent post on David Means, where you emphasized the spirituality of stories, how the realm of the sacred is the concern of many of today's writers, and so how it is important to be sensitive to what is outside language when reading a short story. This insight has helped me appreciate the relevance and significance of stories, as I feel there is an acute confusion around spiritual things these days--which I guess places them appropriately into the hands of story writers.

Just more brainstorming: if you are providing a more analytical study of stories (i.e. chapters on structure, voice, point-of-view) you could go the route of Strunk and White and title your book, "The Elements of Short Stories" (or some variation thereof i.e., "Elements of a Short Story.")

And one last thing, more of a personal request really--and I may be getting ahead of myself here--is in your book to look also at contemporary writers. I know that this will date it, so I will understand if you decide to stick with the Great and Timeless founders of the form, but I've read many books already on Chekhov and Hemingway et. al. and zero that look at writers who are still alive and struggling to make sense of this world.

And I don't mean to suggest you look specifically at very obscure writers for any sort of bonus hip points or academic/street cred or anything (though I guess at this point most writers, especially those who have resisted publishing novels, are obscure) but to look at writers whose stories are particularly poignant in their understanding of what it takes and what it means to live today.

Ailsa Cox said...

Happy anniversary, Charles! It would be so great to have a book called Reading Short Stories that was not proscriptive or mechanical, but encouraged 'slow reading' with a story for every chapter as suggested by Loree. Maybe with comments from the writers as well? I teach 'reading as a writer' but though there is some good work from students they often focus on the beginning and go phrase by phrase rather than seeing the whole structure and sense.

Jose Varghese said...

This was what I'd been looking for all these years! Loved reading every bit, and am waiting to hear more about the project. And yes, Happy blog anniversary!

Sandra said...

I am looking forward to reading your new book. As for title I vote for the same as your blog: Reading the Short Story. The blog is excellent and why not link the book to the blog. And congrats on your blogging three years!

Cathy Day said...

Glad to hear you're working on this book. If I could make a title suggestion: How Does the Story Mean? or How Does a Story Mean? Rather than How does the *short* story mean. I think the question posed in this title is crucial and sets it apart from the other titles (which could just as well be titles for anthologies) but it's also a little wordy when you include both words short and story.

barbara renel said...

Reading the Short Story - great, but Ailsa Cox's suggestion of 'Reading Short Stories' has the edge - less formal, extends the form from 'literary fiction' into a wider understanding of possibilities within the form. A rather belated post, but I'm new to your blog.

Theorbys said...

Re the SEEKING ADVICE sidebar of your blog.

I believe you could analogize Coleridge's model of primary and secondary imagination (no caps). Readers and writers both have a secondary imagination, but writer's can be thought of as having some measure of a primary imagination. You probably can not write for writer's in the sense of giving them the actual creative essence of writing a short story (of course if you CAN, you should CERTAINLY do so).

On the other hand serious readers and writers can both be very interested in serious discussions of the short story form in a manner which stimulates their "secondary imagination", and they will not be daunted by difficulty if they feel that their "s. i." is behaving like a muscle that is being stretched and exercised. I read comments here and absolutely believe many of your readers are, and are representive of, people who would be glad to read something that works their minds and imaginations, but do not want to read "Short Stories 101".

Academically, if you have an original formal understanding of the short story, you should CERTAINLY publish that too, but I don't believe it is generally worthwhile to publish abstrosities based on recombinant nomenclature. Although I don't think such efforts are worthless or insincere, such works are usually unreadable (and dismissed) by nonspecialists.

Thus I believe your general target audience is pretty close to the specific one that reads your blog, but aggregating engaged readers and dedicated professional writers. If it succeeds in engaging the secondary imagination, professors will read it too.

The problem is to provide whatever the mysterious ingredients, beyond what has been said over and over, that will stimulate the analog of the secondary imagination, rather than that of the fancy analog. No easy task.

Personally though, I would be very satisfied by a real massive text book on short stories, a la Intro to Anatomy and Physiology (you know 800 pages long) even if it does smack of Short Stories 101, and I stress the word massive, I mean the works, esp history of. Probably impossible to publish.

Charles E. May said...

I appreciate “Theorbys” taking the time to make these suggestions. I assure everyone that I have no intention of loading down the book I am working on with theoretical jargon and tortuous sentences that wander aimlessly down the page forlornly looking for a period to end their misery. I have read too many academic books like that.

However, I do hope to provide an original theoretical and practical approach to reading short stories that I have developed over the years--one that hopefully will help readers appreciate the form’s unique characteristics.

I harbor no illusions that I can “instruct” writers of the short story “how to write.” I agree with something that Flannery O’Connor once said: “The ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.” However, it is my opinion that the best way to learn how to write short stories is to closely and intelligently read as many great short stories as one can.

I agree with “Theorbys” that the kind of audience I desire for this book is the very kind of audience that reads this blog, although I do not intend to simply “make a book” out of my blog entries. And the audience that reads the blog seems to me to be a healthy mix of engaged educated readers of the short story, energetic dedicated writers of the short story, and intelligent committed student/teachers of the short story.

And as for that 800-page massive book on the short story that “Theorbys” mentions, this book in progress is not that book. But I have started on that book—it is a full-scale critical generic history of the short story beginning with Boccaccio and following the development of the form worldwide up to and including the last story I read before the book goes to press. Although, pace T.S. Eliot, I grow old, I grow old and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, I am strong and healthy and will continue reading and writing about short stories as long as I possibly can.