Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Review: Collected short stories of Richard Yates

Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 3rd 2002 by Picador (first published May 3rd 2001)
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
ISBN 0312420811
ISBN13: 9780312420819

This book contains the collections ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love’, and also some uncollected stories. The titles of both those collections are impeccably well chosen and accurate. It occurs to me that a technique for writing short fiction might be to think of the title of a collection before thinking of any individual story.

Richard Yates is possibly the best value for money short story writer I have ever come across. There is not a single poor or unengaging story in the book. The quality is astonishingly consistent. Unlike with Raymond Carver, or a lot of contemporary collections, there is no story which leaves you thinking “What was the point of that?”

The biggest theme in Yates’s stories seems to be vulnerability. At times, one finds oneself captivated and horrified at the same time. An outstanding example of this is ‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’. This is that most technically difficult of writing projects – a story without a single empathetic character. The pleasure the reader gets is from the acuity of the observation of human behaviour, and the expertly controlled way the story unfolds.

Yates began publishing these stories in the late 1950s. Many of them have an evocative, post-war atmosphere, like the American equivalent of Graham Greene. At the same time, the themes are universal and the style is contemporary.

The settings and the life-styles of the characters are comparable to Carver’s. The characters are unglamorous, often short of money, often hate their jobs or surroundings, and are nearly always unfulfilled. Another difficult feat that Yates achieves (several times) is to write engaging stories about characters who are writers.

When I was collecting critiques of my story, ‘Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please?’ a friend compared it to Richard Yates. I can now see a thematic resemblance – miscommunication, frustration, unfulfilment – and it is one of the greatest compliments my writing has ever been paid.


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