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?

1 comment:

  1. Please read some Kipling short stories. The most "Eng Lit" of them is "The Gardener", but the series of stories (Plain Tales from the Hills, Many Inventions, Debits & Credits etc) set in India fulfil the essential criteria of a single idea worked through (echoes of the 2" of ivory) but the cumulative effect of the collection is to leave the reader with the sense of place and person that had been the preserve of the novelist.

    I also defy you to read Saki ("The Chronicles of Clovis" - in particular the story "Tobermory") and not blog in admiration.

    I think the trouble is that most short story writers burden their stories with meaning - far more than the delicate form can really take. Kipling and Saki (and Katherine Mansfield too, if I am to demonstrate serious credentials) seem to me to understand the fragility of the form.

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