Short Story Collections: A Guide for Book Groups

A Book Club Guide To Discussing Short Story Collections

Why am I writing this?

I’m writing this because in the year and a half since my short story collection came out, I have had some amazing experiences discussing it with book clubs but I have also been told by many other groups that they find it hard to “tackle” story collections. First they run into a too-common reluctance to read those books at all, but then, for reasons inherent to the form, it’s also difficult to structure a conversation.  There isn’t one set of characters to discuss. There isn’t one plot.  There may even be stories that feel as though different authors wrote them.  These things may seem obvious, but how to craft a cohesive discussion in spite of them, isn’t so clear.

And so I have been thinking about advice to give, strategies to suggest, mostly because I really do believe that although the approach may have to be be a little different, the experience of talking about stories is truly one of the great joys to be found among exchanges about literature.

Strategies for Discussing a Short Story Collection:

1. Pick a group member who can be sure to finish the book at least a week before the meeting and ask that person to select two or three stories for the group to focus on.  One of the hardest things is to come in with ten stories to discuss.  Just the sheer variety can lead to chaos.  And this approach also means that if reading ten individual stories feels daunting to anyone in the group, they will at least have read the material for a main discussion.

2. Try to give each of the stories you choose a good 15 minutes (or more) of discussion on its own, before trying to see how it relates to the other stories or where it fits into the collection as whole. Treat it first as if it were its own little book. This is especially important in collections that aren’t “linked” but made up of stories that were written as very separate entities. Think of it as an art gallery. You take in the whole, but also, you want to be sure to look at each work on its own.

3. After you’ve discussed two or three stories individually, then try to see how they (or, maybe how they all) relate to one another. Some questions to ask:

- Does the author have a theme to which she returns over and over?

- Is there a certain type of character that tends to crop up in many of the stories?

- Do all of the stories feel as though they are of equal “weight?” If not, what makes one story feel more significant than another?

- Why do you think the author chose the first story to be first and the last story to be last?

- What about titles? What is the author trying to do with titles? Some possibilities: Titles can tell you what to pay attention to; titles can set the tone of a story; titles can be mysterious until after you have finished the story, when their meaning becomes clear. Does the author have a “title style?”

- Does the author do any cross-gender writing? (A woman author writing as a man or visa versa). How successful is that? Why do you think the author did that?

- A lot of the stories we all grew up reading had either happy endings or trick endings of some kind, but in many ways, both of those have fallen out of literary style. Do the stories in this book tend to have the same kinds of endings as each other? How would you describe them? Where does your author leave her characters?

- Are there particular stories you could see going on to being novels? If so, why?

- Did you find yourself wondering about certain characters once the story was over? If so, why do you think specific ones stuck with you?

I’ll leave it there, but I hope this is helpful.  In the end, I think that discussing short story collections is a little different.  It often turns out to be a little bit more of a discussion about writing and the choices the author made, than discussing a novel may be. There isn’t one story to be lost in or one character’s adventures and fate to attach to. It’s a genuinely different kind of book.  But for those very reasons I think it may be a great way to shake up a book group now and then.  And if you choose to do it, I very much hope these suggestions help.

And please, let me know!