Thursday, 4 April 2019

Immersion - why only writers read short stories

During March I wrote a 3000 word story - about the longest I've written. Each day I wrote one or two new drafts. I began to immerse myself in the situation before getting up in the morning, imagining myself in the back garden where the action takes place. Will readers notice that devotion? Maybe a few.

People who read long, popular novels (especially novel series) love to lose themselves in the world of the book, detaching themselves from their surroundings. They get to know the characters and the settings. Many readers seem capable of doing this. Readers who can cope with short stories are rarer - they need to rapidly acquaint themselves with their new surroundings, knowing that their investment is short-term. Reading a multi-author story anthology is harder still, becoming a lost art for the boxed-set generation.

For poetry and Flash there's sometimes the need for similar immersion. More often readers need to tune into something less palpable and enveloping - a tone, a voice, a mood. It's easier to read a single-author work than a magazine or anthology, especially if you're the kind of reader who's looking beyond the text to construct the author's psyche or identity politics.

Of course, some readers (me included, often) distrust immersion, feeling that it's a trick, looking out for the mechanics that the author's used to produce the effect. Often it's done by making the medium transparent, reducing the arty, poetic, sound/language-based effects of their work. An alternative available to poets is to immerse the reader in the sounds, the art.

Genre and stock settings/characters are short cuts to world-building. Significant details help too, as can having characters and situations that readers can empathise with. Online and in books are many tips for writers who want readers to experience immersion, and some more theoretical pieces that also consider immersion in computer games and VR. Here are just a few books and links

What character traits in readers correlate with rapid immersion? Perhaps -

  • Easy detachment from the world (daydreaming)
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Ability to deduce worlds, characters and situations from small clues

These are much the same traits that writers need, so it's no surprise that only short story writers read short stories - particularly anthologies.


  1. My wife's into series at the moment. She's read eighty-eight books so far this year if I heard her correctly, eighty-something anyway. She loves to wallow in the worlds these authors have created. I've never been one for that. Not with books. Films and TV shows are another thing. You make good points here. What puzzles me, as the world's attention span dwindles away to nothing, is that short stories aren't becoming more popular. Or maybe they are and I never got the memo. I have to say I've tended to avoid short story collections in recent years mainly because they were harder to review. At least I found them hard although nowhere near as hard as books of poetry. The author whose short stories I've read the most of, although we're going back many years, is Asimov and what I liked about them (we're talking his robot stories although I did read others) was the fact they stood alone and yet formed part of a bigger picture. They were in some respects a novel in short stories which is a term you see bandied about from time to time although I'm not really sure it's a real thing. Most short stories I find are too long for my tastes but then I find most novels too long too. We can learn a lot from comedians, just what's absolutely essential to a story: A guy walks into a bar... What guy? What bar? It doesn't matter. The comic trusts his audience to work with him and short story writers (and poets even more so) need to be able to do the same, to at least meet the author halfway. I don't think I'd use the word "immerse" although there's nothing really wrong with it. My wife immerses herself in whatever universe she's in; that's where the pleasure lies for her. I think I'd go with "involve" because short stories need that from their readers, that they get their hands dirty. Food for thought either way.

  2. I've recently read "Madame Zero" by Sarah Hall, "Legoland" by Gerard Woodward, "The sing of the shore" by Lucy Wood, "Jellyfish" by Janice Galloway, "Stranded" by V.L. McDermid, "Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7", "An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It" by Jessie Greengrass.

    Most of them have been on my reading list because of the rave reviews they've received (I've been meaning to read Galloway for years). What makes several of them easier to review is that the pieces are related. The anthology pieces aren't. I think that might be the best of the lot, but people find such books hard going - lots of world-building to do. In the SF world, story anthologies are more common. Perhaps the stories don't make as many demands as literary ones.
    I used the term "immersion" because that's the technical term people use.