Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
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Book Review: 

On Writing Short Stories

By Francine Prose and Tom Bailey

Reviewed By Mamta Murthy
2005,
Mamta Murthy


Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by the world of short stories; Anton Chekov mesmerized me, O Henry astounded me, and Saki made me laugh with his cheeky character Clovis Sangrail. Years later, as a struggling writer trying to write great and memorable short stories, I wasn't meeting with much success.

It was then that a friend gifted me with the book On Writing Short Stories. To be frank, I was more than a little skeptical about the book before reading it. How could a book teach you how to write great stories? It would be something like trying to learn swimming from a how-to book, I thought.

The book does not teach you how to write great stories. Instead, it has a collection of essays by seven well-known writers, each of whom tackles major issues related to short-story writing.

Francine Prose begins, pondering what exactly constitutes a short story. "Great short stories make us marvel at their integrity, their economy," she writes. She then goes on to give several examples to illustrate her points.

Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay, stresses the importance of reading as a writer. Tom Bailey tackles the essential elements of short fiction: character, plot, setting and time, metaphor, and voice. A writer needs to make a habit of writing, according to Andre Dubus, who offers a marvelous essay on this and demonstrates the necessity of "the habit of writing" through his illustrious and gentle prose. Robert Coles explores "literatures as a means of understanding human affairs." C. Michael Curtis, senior editor for The Atlantic Monthly, tells how to avoid that dreaded rejection letter and how best to ensure that your short-fiction submissions are eligible for "friendly consideration." Frank Conroy, Director of the Writers' Workshop at University of Iowa, talks about the workshop and dispels myths people hold about writing workshops. He says, "The student ... should not be looking for solutions from the other students or from the teacher. The student should be looking for problems in the text that he or she had not been aware of."

18 classic short stories, including Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," de Maupassant's "The String," Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," are part of the book. Each of the short stories included in the collection captivates the reader in its own way and offers insights to aspiring writers who are willing to look deeper into the story. I particularly liked Hemingway's short story; its appeal lay in its simplicity.

By including these stories immediately after the essays, the editors of the book have ensured that the reader gains better insights into what makes a great short story and what constitutes great story telling. What's more, you don't necessarily have to read the book in sequence; you are free to turn chapters back and forth and take up any chapter in any order. The same goes for the stories. The book does not follow any standard systematic approach, but is rather like an old friend beside whom you can sit on the porch, in fading daylight, mulling over things, analyzing and pausing from time to time in deep contemplation.

At the very end, the book contains a comprehensive list of magazines, journals, and quarterlies that publish short fiction.

Having this book as an essential part of your book collection, regardless of whether you are an established short story writer or aspiring to be one, would definitely be a wise move.

On Writing Short Stories

Edited by Francine Prose and Tom Bailey

Oxford University Press

ISBN: 0195122720

Published: November 1999

Mamta Murthy is based in Bombay, India. Her website is www.mamta.tk