20 pages into Arvida–Samuel Archibald’s Giller nominated book of short stories–I knew it wasn’t for me.
It wasn’t that Archibald was a bad writer; clearly he’s talented. It wasn’t that his ideas weren’t interesting; one of them was about a group of retired Montreal Canadiens playing against local hockey players who never made it to the NHL. That shit is my jam. And yet, I was seething over the fact that I’d forced myself into reading a barely-200-page book with a hair-brained, unnecessarily ambitious, “You’re going to read all five Giller nominees” challenge. I shouldn’t have spent the week as a whiney, petulant baby, but I did. And after a bit of soul searching, I realized why.
It’s not that Arvida sucks. It’s that I fucking hate short stories.
I hate them. Flat out despise them. I would rather get nosebleeds while reading the 4-millionish pages of Infinite Jest than read a single 30-page short story.
I spent the next few days reeling from this little epiphany. I was legitimately sad about it. It actually affected my mood. My plans changed.
That’s because I spent six years of high-priced education getting English and Publishing degrees. I write for a living. When I’m not doing that I read books and spend my nights blogging about them for almost no good reason. I should enjoy short stories. I’m almost contractually obligated to at this point. And yet I can’t recall a single one that I’ve enjoyed in my entire life. (I’m sure I have, but I have the memory of a head of cabbage.)
As a book blogger there are few things more degrading than finding out you loathe a book that’s almost universally loved. Clearly, there’s something wrong with you. Apparently, you’re unqualified to voice your opinion. At least, that’s how it feels. (Sometimes, though, it’s that everyone else is wrong. Like with Ready Player One. That book is absolute dogshit and I’m convinced that in a few years everyone else is going to see it too. But I digress.) As I do with most books I don’t like, I headed to Google and Goodreads to find out what other people thought of it. To my slight surprise–given that Arvida has been shortlisted for the country’s most prestigious literary prize–the reviews for the English translation are almost non-existent. I can only find three credible reviews via Google (an almost scientific impossibility at this point), and only four English reviews on Goodreads.
This makes no sense. The Giller brings with it unrivalled prestige in Canada, surely Arvida has been reviewed by at least a dozen credible sources. Why hasn’t it?
After a few days with this I think I figured it out, and my conscience has been clear ever since. No more mood swings. No more feeling sad. I’m sleeping better.
I shouldn’t feel bad about hating short stories because here’s the publishing world’s dirty little secret: almost everybody fucking does.
The short story is an affectation of dogmatic literary traditionalists, because they’re supposedly pure, a test of a writer’s economy. They’re drenched in metaphor and symbolism. They’re what true artists write, people who don’t need the money or the fame they may have been able to achieve with a novel. Only those with the thickest of thick-rimmed glasses write short stories, so we ought to pay attention and nod along like we understand their art.
But guess what, literary elite: pretty well no one else gives a shit, and if there weren’t hoity toity prizes to glamorize these collections no one would ever read them because, again, no one gives a shit.
And that’s okay.
We don’t have to like something just because it’s been around a long time. We don’t need to like something just because Hemingway wrote a few of these things. We don’t have to like short stories because they’re great for honing a writer’s craft.
Hone away. Just don’t expect me to pay for your electric bills so that you can practice.
In today’s world, the fact that I’m railing against works that ask me to have a shorter attention span is a point of pride. I love long works of fiction. Stuff I can dig my teeth into. Characters and circumstances I can invest myself in for more than twenty minutes. It’s good exercise.
Is all of this a bit of a cover up for me not getting Archibald’s apparent brilliance? Possibly.
Did I go on this rant because I really didn’t know how to review a book I didn’t get? You bet I did.
But this is also a cathartic realization that, as a reader, I don’t need to feel beholden to certain forms or practices that, quite frankly, aren’t at all relevant outside of literary journals with readerships so small I could squeeze them into my two-bedroom apartment.
Enjoy what you like, and don’t beat yourself up over what you don’t. Because at the end of the day, the only person’s opinion that matters is your own.