During my first year at uni, my friend started a book club. We picked Ulysses. We met up once and I’ve still never read Ulysses. Book clubs are hard! They’re so hard that blogs list things to talk about when no one in the book club read the book. (“Read reviews of the book out loud and talk about those.”) If your book club is really just an excuse to hang out, that’s fine! But if you actually want to read and discuss some literature, try a short story club.
Count on everyone to finish
Reading a typical book-club book takes hours. For most people, that requires multiple reading sessions. If a reader hasn’t started reading by the morning of the club’s meetup, they’re screwed. With a short story, they can read it in one lunch break. Hell, they can read it twice.
Take bigger risks
Because it takes so long, reading a bad book is exhausting. Reading a bad short story is like fine, who cares, next. So your club can try more challenging, avant garde, or controversial stories. You can “try out” a new author without making a commitment to a whole book.
If a story really didn’t work out for most readers, at least no one feels like they wasted hours of their life. Especially if you double up.
You can read two or three short stories per meetup, and still end up with less homework than a book. Pick multiple stories by one author, or in one genre, or from one time period, or from the same anthology. Or intentionally pick contrasting stories.
If people only read one or two of the stories, they can still meaningfully participate and they don’t have to worry about spoiling a book they’re only halfway through.
Read for free
Most contemporary books will cost you, but many short stories are published for free online. That also means you can read them on your phone. Here are some of my favourites:
- “The Soft Truth” by Leigh Alexander: If Dostoyevsky were addicted to “oddly satisfying” YouTube videos, this is how he would have written The Double.
“Sex Robots” by Lucie Britsch: It’s actually about professional pizza eaters. Britsch writes like James Thurber or Miranda July. Most of Britsch’s stories centre on loners and weirdo geniuses with variously supportive or unsupportive boyfriends.
“We Men of Science” by Raphael Bob-Waksberg: After you’ve googled all of Lucie Britsch’s fiction and you’re waiting for her next story, this will tide you over nicely.
“The Prairie Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld: A story about the resentments we hold toward our childhood friends, and how the internet helps us stew in those resentments.
“unWindr” by Michael Lutz: A Halloween story presented as a forum thread, which is a very clever way to tell a story in reverse.
“The Ashram and Mum” by Jesse Eisenberg: The Social Network actor also writes fiction and humour, and his series “Bream Gives Me Hiccups: Restaurant Reviews From a Privileged Nine-Year-Old” is classic McSweeney’s.
“An Account of the Land of Witches” by Sofia Samatar: For A. S. Byatt fans, a sweeping, polyphonic story about mythology and academia.
“Headshot” by Julian Mortimer Smith: I’m not a fan of Gary Shteyngart’s futuristic satire Super Sad True Love Story, but I’m a fan of Jon Bois’s 17776, and this story about soldiers as Twitch streamers reminds me of both.
“CONTINUE? Y/N” by Kendra Fortmeyer: A flower girl in a video game refuses to remain a non-player character. This is like if Black Mirror were good.
Pick a curated collection
Short stories come in collections. Several of the above are from ongoing online series. You could follow one that your whole group likes. The New Yorker puts out a short story every issue (plus an annual fiction issue) and its archives go back for decades. Until you hit your paywall limit, you can get those stories free online.
Or subscribe to One Story, a literary magazine that sends you just one short story every month. (You’ll also get one story by a teenager every three months.)
You can also spread out one published anthology across several discussions. If you’re catching up on the classics, try the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. For a little over a century, the annual Best American Short Stories anthology has collected the year’s best fiction. This year’s edition is edited by author Roxane Gay.
You could also start an article club, as writer Joanna Goddard did. That can produce lively discussion, but it will lack some of the escapism of discussing fiction.
Unless everyone in the club loves the same author, you might want to avoid crawling through one author’s short story collection. But if you do, it can be a fun way to spend a whole year discussing Borges, or Woolf, or Lorrie Moore, while still leaving plenty of time for your other reading.
Or you can fill your whole lineup with suggestions from the comments below. Readers, what are your favourite short stories to talk about with other people?