A Categorical Take on Short Stories

As with other literary genres, short stories have different “categories.” Two of those “categories” include tales that are psychologically insightful but not very plot-oriented, and more “escapist” tales that have a strong, perhaps even exciting story line leading inexorably to a conclusion.

I like many stories from each camp, and also enjoy tales that combine the two styles. As with novels, it’s great to experience reading variety!

Obviously, psychologically insightful tales can offer plenty of food for thought and reflection, even if they’re not purely entertaining. But it’s nice sometimes to just sink one’s teeth into an adventure tale that gets the blood racing.

Thanks to James Joyce, I thought about all this after reading his Dubliners collection of short stories. (Previously, I had only gotten to that collection’s final, sublime, most-famous tale, “The Dead,” by finding it online.) Many of the Dubliners stories are subtle, slice-of-life works; they don’t exactly yank a reader toward Jack Reacher-like thriller endings. Yet they delve deeply into the human psyche and the difficulties and epiphanies of life for everyday people, and also give readers a panoramic view of the Dublin of 100-plus years ago.

Many of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are similar — usually not that plot-driven, but very rich in emotions, nuances, philosophical thoughts, and character delineation. And of course it helps to be a great wordsmith, as Joyce and Chekhov were.

Contrast those kinds of tales — which can often be categorized as literary fiction — with something like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” or Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” that seem to run on adrenaline as they move readers toward a breathtaking climax. Or with mostly comedic stories — such as Mark Twain’s career-making “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” — that may not have a huge amount of depth but sure are funny.

Then there are stories that seem to have “the best of both worlds” — psychological insight and (perhaps propulsive) drama. They include — among various other tales by various other writers — Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph,” Leo Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” George Eliot’s “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Graham Greene’s “Proof Positive,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” and Margaret Atwood’s more recent “Stone Mattress.”

What are some of your favorite short stories with psychologically insightful or escapist approaches, or a combination of the two?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.