Wednesday, 27 April 2011

short stories - essentially unsatisfying or little gems of a writer's craft?


I’ve been thinking about short stories. What set me off was that Elspeth has been practicing her creative writing because she has exams. They have a paper with 20 topics on it and an hour and a quarter to do it. That really means you only get about 50 minutes of actual writing, by the time you’ve read through the paper to choose a topic, made some kind of plan and allowed yourself time to read it through at the end. The paper has what used to be called ‘discursive’ topics back in the day, which E’s teacher has told them to avoid as they’re difficult to do well, ‘personal writing’ which they’ve practised quite a bit, and strikes me as easiest anyway, and narrative writing, i.e. ‘write a story about/set in/on the theme of/inspired by…’ Anyway, Elspeth is an avid writer and I think she may think the personal writing is too easy; she’s determined that narrative writing is the choice for her. So she’s decided to practise regularly, with me providing topics for her, and that I have to do it too. We gave ourselves an hour to write, but only one topic, so no choosing had to be done. And it was so hard! Firstly, because to be on a level playing field we decided that I too had to write by hand (which was a challenge for E to read!) to slow me down, and also so that I would be forced to write forwards, instead of constantly adding and editing, as I normally would; but secondly because I am (as you will no doubt have realised) a witterer, and to write a narrative with some sort of progression in 50 minutes is very nearly impossible for me.

And the thing is, I don’t even like short stories. My heart sinks when someone gives me a book of short stories to read. When I come across one sometimes in a newspaper or magazine, even when it is written by an author I love, I just turn the page. I know that many great short stories have been written, and I understand that many fellow obsessive readers will be unable to understand how I can spurn these little gems of the writer’s craft, but I just don’t see the appeal. I suspect it is at least partly to do with what one is used to from reading. A novel has a gradual progression, characters develop though their behaviour and interactions, building from page to page, plot and setting unfold, the narrative has time to expand and usually time to reach some kind of satisfying conclusion. But, for me, short stories are essentially unsatisfying as they must needs portmanteau these elements into a shorter framework. For me, this usually leads to one of two results: either I have become interested in the characters and feel cheated when the story ends and I still feel there are things to find out; or the story wraps itself up in some sort of tricksy ending, a twist that seems too clever, and leaves me irritated (and yes, top of the list is Maupassant’s La Parure a story I loathe for its manipulativeness but cannot help admiring).

I will admit to a couple of exceptions. I love Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which I first read after seeing the movie The Company of Wolves (yes, loved that too). These though might as well be fairy tales and they work the same way, little snippets of narrative with the weight of half-remembered folk symbolism behind them which gives their insubstantialness a peculiar and marvellous depth. I must have read Ian McEwan’s In Between the Sheets and First Love, Last Rites at about the same time. These two collections I have read and reread and for some reason they just really do it for me. I saw a one-man show based on The Cupboard Man at Edinburgh one year and it struck me then that McEwan had managed to capture the essence of this character and his story here, that it worked as a short story (and a short play) because there was nothing else to be said. I loved these stories so much that for years I bought each new Ian McEwan novel, but never found any of them struck me as deeply until I read Enduring Love (which is so short as to be almost a novella). The extraordinary and unsettling, so prevalent in all his books, struck me once again as perfectly realised in this little book. At the moment, Solar is lying in the pile next to my bed. Will it do it for me again?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Do you reread?


Do you reread? I do, but not often; certainly not as often as I did when I was a child. Then, certain favourites would be sure to call to me again and again. I read both Alices on a regular basis (I preferred Looking Glass then, I think because it was more structured, but now I prefer Wonderland, perfect evocation of the wild variety in dreams). I read all the Enid Blyton boarding school books many times over. I read the entire Lord of the Rings about once a year from the time I first read it at 13 until the time before last, in some university holidays, and then again a few years ago, when the films came out and I wanted to see if I could find in it what I had found then (and I did, which was such a relief). I reread Elizabeth Goodge, Barbara Willard, KM Peyton, E Nesbit; if a book was really worth reading once, it was certainly worth another go.

I suppose then, the comfort of familiarity, and the knowledge that the book would be good before I started to read were factors making me want to reread. Also, of course, the fact that all these books were there on my shelves, I didn’t have to go to the effort of discovering something new. It didn’t seem to bother me that I already knew what was going to happen. In fact, the anticipation seemed to add to the pleasure.

It’s different now. I reread far less and when my children ask me ‘what’s your favourite book?’ or even ‘who’s your favourite author?’ I couldn’t possibly answer them, although I certainly could have at any moment of my childhood. Of course, I can’t answer them; I’ve read too many books to make a decision like this, and who knows, the next one I pick up may be my favourite. But also, I no longer get that pure joy, that certainty that feeling that what I am reading is absolutely perfect in every way. I suppose my critical faculties get in the way, so that as well as letting the story into my brain, I am aware of the structure, the vocabulary, the places where the author could have done one thing but chose to do another. That’s not to say that I never reread, and generally I will only keep books that I think I am likely to want to pick up again some day (about 70% of those I buy or am given).

So having said all this, I had a truly perfect rereading experience lately. I was stuck for something to read, and though most of my fiction is STILL in the attic, I do have a couple of shelves of books by my bed that have somehow escaped being boxed up and put away. I picked up The Time-Traveler’s Wife, a book I loved when it first came out. I was slightly dubious about it this time, as a couple of people had told me since that they thought it was trite, so I did wonder if it would stand rereading. Sometimes books are enjoyable the first time but you can’t see it at all when you reread (Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, for example). At first I just opened it randomly and read a few different parts. I was trying to remember how the chronology worked. But in no time, it hooked me, and I started again from the beginning, and then devoured it in a few sittings. It didn’t matter that I knew what was going to happen. Actually the book makes it quite clear from early on that it’s not going to end well. I found myself enjoying it as much as the first time I read it, and maybe even more, because the anticipation added spice to the narrative. The best part was that Robert was out the evening I finished it, so I read the last 50 pages or so, all alone, with tears running down my face. Bliss!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Library reading frenzy

I went to the library twice this week. Which is remarkable really in that I haven't been at all in about a year. When I was a child we seemed to go all the time. It would have been once a week, I suppose, to keep my mother in books, but it seemed like both a habit and a treat. The times I remember best were after I was at boarding school, so those library visits were for reading fodder to fill in the lovely freedom of holiday hours. My mother always went straight to the returned books rack (why? because books other people had read might be more appealing? or newer?) usually followed by the crime section. I could have spent hours browsing, but clearly I needed a system too so I could keep up with her speed selection.So I would always pick one book of fairy tales (I favoured those Ruth Manning-Sanders ones, A Book of Trolls, A Book of Princesses as well as the Fairytales from... one place or another), plus something by an author I already knew and liked, then I'd select two more fairly randomly, trying to beat my speedy mother (and if he were there, my brother, who sought out dull books about space or fishing, as far as I can remember). One time when Mum beat me to it, she pulled from the shelf an Elizabeth Gouge to add to my pile; I forget which one but it was the first, and a revelation. Maybe she did this often, opening my eyes to undiscovered writers.

Anyway, this week I took the girls because it's their holidays, and even though we have enough books in the house to entertain them for several years, more and different books are always welcome. Besides, the choosing in a library is such fun. You can have lots ( I actually don't know how many) and you can experiment. It doesn't matter if you don't like them. And the books in a library are so different from those in a bookshop. Certainly, you'll find a few by all the currently popular authors, and if you ask, you can  probably get all their stuff. But it's not all sitting there, taking up shelf space to the exclusion of all else. In between one or two blockbusters, there'll be something by someone you've never heard of, or something that came out several years ago that you missed, or something ancient that you've always meant to read. Book heaven!

So, why did we have to go twice? Well, Livia (7), unused to the 'grab as may as you can' ethos of holiday library visits, only took out two books, which she read in two days; Elspeth (13) read until her eyes ached, finishing four books in three days; and Marianne (10), who wasn't with us on the first visits, but for whom I'd taken out the next Harry P, thinking it would take her all week, finished that in two days. And as for me, I'd only gone to pick up a couple of books about keeping chickens, but I was so enthused by the girls' reading frenzy, that when I went back I took four for myself. True to form, I picked something newish I'd never heard of, one I'd not read by a familiar author, one by a columnist I like though I didn't know he wrote fiction, and a classic that had passed me by. They don't have much of a fairy tale selection though...