Monday, April 06, 2009

Essays vs. Short Stories

Citizen Reader had a book reading menage last week that compared essays and short stories. The books under consideration were Dangerous Laughter by Stephen Millhauser and The Braindead Megaphone by George Sanders. I preferred the Millhauser short story collection over the book of essays, but the discussion over at Citizen Reader got me thinking about short pieces.

I tend not to read a lot of essays and short fiction. For whatever reason, I tend to read any book from start to finish. When I run into an essay or short story that doesn't work, I tend to skip to the next and read a bit faster. After a couple misfires, I am flying through the book, racing to the end, feeling generally dissatisfied. Usually one or two stories will stand out (sometimes an entire collection as in Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life and Others or Edward P Jones's Lost in the City) but my reading style means I often miss the gems or give up on a collection early in the book.

The Millhauser book is organized by theme which helped another problem I have with collections. In many cases, the shift in subject matter, tone, voice or other changes is so jarring that I end up putting the book down. I thought this was particularly the case with the Saunders book where he hopped from angry polemic to humorous travel writing in a few short pages. I usually liked the essays, but I didn't care for the transitions.

Making matters worse is that I hate to have any book in an unfinished state. The only worse than looking at all the books I haven't yet read is seeing a book that I still haven't finished. I realize that I this is entirely wrong-headed thinking, but I always consider the opportunity cost of each read and the perception that reading a book of of essays and short stories will slow me down usually prevents me from starting.

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