This blog is devoted to thinking outside the box. Writing is a complex activity and sometimes we forget that one of the best ways to learn is to read something different. And that's why I mean when I use that horrible phrase: Think Outside The Box. Because some of us forget that the actual framework of the story is also a creative element and can be used in unique ways to deepen the message or illuminate some aspect that is relevant to the characterization. (See "Thug" below.)
I really like stories that may not fit in the normal story mold. For some strange reason, I have a particular love of fiction that is a little…well, different. In college, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker and discovered short stories. Often, weird short stories. And for me, the weirder, the better. . I discovered that Woody Allen, for example, didn't just make films. He wrote dozens of fantastic & funny short stories. I got a subscription to the New Yorker for a while, but eventually terminated it because out of 12 issues, I might only find 1 or two stories that were different enough to catch my interest. I'm just not into depressing stories about how miserable and hopeless life really is and unfortunately, the editors drifted in that direction.
So here is a short list of stories ranging in length from very short to very long. There is something different about each one and if I could tempt you to read them, I'll feel that I've done something worthwhile. I won't say they are the best "in their class" or anything like that, but they are works of fiction that I remember and that is saying something. I remember very, very little.
I tried to find my "Portable Dorothy Parker" book to include her short story about a woman asked to dance (when she really doesn't want to dance) but I couldn't find it and I'm darned if I can remember the name of it. Sigh. I'll have to talk about it another time…
"Thug: Signification and the Deconstruction of Self" by Tyler Dilts. You can find it in the collection: "Best American Mystery Stories 2003". I cannot recommend this story enough—it is absolutely brilliant. The story framework supports and illuminates the main character's —well, uh, character, in a unique way. Get it. Read it. Study it and think about it.
"Surface Tension" by James Blish. Things are not as they seem. I don't know why this story has stuck with me so many years, except that the feeling of yearning and striving and striking out to explore new horizons strikes such a chord within me…
"The Unrest Cure" by Saki (aka H.H. Munroe). Not a politically correct story, but damn if this isn't one of the best short stories I've ever read. It rates right up there (if not above) the one we're all forced to read in school by him: "The Open Window". Which I also love, along with "Esmé". If you want to learn how to magically make horrible characters strangely likeable, read any of his short stories. And for the sheer satisfaction of seeing a petty tyrant get her just desserts, "Sredni Vashtar". I guess P.C. people won't like these stories, but I can't seem to help myself.
I like so few poems but I wanted to include these—just because.
"The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter" by Ezra Pound
Poem 986 by Emily Dickinson – which contains the memorable lines which capture so perfectly the emotion when you feel when you come upon a snake gliding through the grass:
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the bone—
I hesitated over this and couldn't decide between "The Death of a Duchess" by Elizabeth Eyre for its subtle characterizations that do not hit you all at once in the face but grow gradually, and "The Grail Tree" by Jonathan Gash, who really shows you how to create and stay in character when using first person. Or perhaps I'm just deluded and Gash really does sound, think and talk like Lovejoy.
"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clark. And check out the website: www.jonathanstrange.com . This story is enthralling and weird and different. It's like reading some compelling history book, complete with footnotes (hilarious), except it never happened. And the descriptions and characters are done so brilliantly… I can't even imagine the amount of work and research that went into this book.
"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand. More philosophy than fiction, but interesting because of it.
Like I said – I would hesitate to say any of these are the best & brightest works. They are ones I found memorable and some had writing techniques that were just so amazing I had to include them. This isn't my favorites list (although I guess Thug is my favorite story at the current time) and I actually don't keep such a list because it varies depending upon what I've read recently and my variable memory. I do like Georgette Heyer, particularly "The Masqueraders" and "Faro's Daughter", when I like no other historical romance novels—go figure. So my tastes vary wildly.
I won't promise you'll love these stories, but they really are worth your time.