Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Are writers the only - or the best - readers of short stories?

Pigs are not the only connoisseurs of truffles

‘Good short stories are not always "easy" to read; you certainly can't skim them or read them only for plot. The fact of the matter is, short stories are more appreciated by other writers than they are by non-writers.’

This is a line from a post by Charles C May on his brilliant blog, Reading the Short Story. He goes on to discuss his response to prize collections of short stories in the US, but the issue he raises in that opening paragraph is one that has been exercising me of late.

I write short stories, I read them a lot, I am doing a PhD on short stories. However, I didn’t read short stories for adults seriously until my mid-twenties. Even then, discovering them, I read too fast, gulping them down without pause. It took me a quite some time to figure out how much I was losing by reading too many at once. I remember likening reading an Angela Carter story (‘The Erl King’) to eating figgy pudding, so rich is it, but at the time I was alluding to the opulence of language and image. However, I see now, that all really good short stories, even ascetic, simple, realist ones, should be treated like rich desserts, to be pondered over and definitely not followed by every other pudding on the menu. Otherwise, all those complex flavours are lost.

It only hit me recently that this attitude to reading and appreciating short stories is something I have learned over time, and then had hugely reinforced by hearing fellow writers express the same. It is reinforced further when critiquing a story – really poring over it, searching it for meaning and structure – turns out to be such an enriching experience. So now, this attitude smacks a little of connoisseurship, which of course implies a kind of elitism. If you have to instruct someone on how to interact with a piece of art before they can appreciate it, my instinct – with visual art at least – is that something has gone wrong somewhere. Should the same apply to short stories?

I should be clear that I am talking about literary short stories. This category can encompass a certain amount of genre-ish fiction, and I’d include the best of science fiction, surreal and horror short stories in this. Even these need not always be read only for plot, as May says, and I think this is where short stories come apart from novels. A short story can be absolutely brilliant, but contain very little in the way of action. These kinds of stories can seem deeply unsatisfying to the ‘uninitiated’, yet be deeply resonant and fulfilling for the short story connoisseur, the ultimate connoisseur being that explorer of the written form: the writer.

Talking to a writer friend about this problem – that a lot of short story writers are being read only by other writers – he pointed out to me that the situation is even more acute for poets. Of course, a few make it into the wider literary consciousness, but for the huge majority of poets, their main audience is other poets. These people are often writing very accessible poetry, and some poets in all ages have done so, but for the novel-chomping majority, they remain invisible. 

A good poem, like a good short story, has a kind of fractal effect on the mind upon rereading, slower reading, reading aloud. A world just as deep as those created in novels is there for the taking; it’s just that a lot of us either don’t, or won’t, take it. We desire story, which of course a lot of poetry does not deliver. However, finding the ‘story’ in what we call ‘short stories’ is not always as straightforward as trying to find and follow a plot. Many of the best short stories satisfy with only a jolt, or even less – a shift in perception, perhaps – but readers need to understand that, and such understanding only comes through extensive reading, or better still, writing.

I regularly expose my short stories to a critique group composed of novelists. These are published writers, who read a lot and know the literary world. They give me invaluable advice about how I might shape my overall short story collection. When they do this they are imagining a book, which will be read cover to cover as one would read a novel. Part of me wants to retort that this is not the way to read short stories: one should dip in, read, rest, without concern for order. But the part of me that remembers not knowing ‘how to read short stories’ takes heed in the hope that one day, a story I write might be read by someone who is not also a short story writer. This difference in perspective reminds me just how embedded I have become in the world of short story writers and readers, and the comfort that comes with knowing they will read my work in the way I want them to. We all need to acknowledge that the reading majority are not in our little bubble of short-form appreciation.

You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy great short stories. I think you just have to understand what they are. They are not chapters extracted from novels; they are not extended jokes. Importantly, they are often not tales, and perhaps this is where expectation and product come apart. I love tales, I read them and I write them, but contemporary short stories are rarely aiming in that direction. Perhaps what we need for the literary short story genre is a new name, which removes the implication of rampant plot. Or maybe, we could get away with one little instruction: read these slowly, one at a time, and then think.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Wolves and Wild Girls: Angela Carter and Denis Johnson

Spot the wolf...

I found myself surrounded by wolves this week, literarily rather than literally. A writer friend, Jarred McGinnis, recommended a book to me by Denis Johnson. Having encountered Johnson’s work via the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I expected another story centring around alcoholics, drug addicts, and the grit of low kinds of lives. But the novella Train Dreams, set in 20th century America, briskly charts the life of Grainier, a man whose simple existence is shaped by the loss of his wife and child in a forest fire. What a beautiful book it is. Johnson exemplifies many qualities of great writing in Train Dreams, but two of those qualities I have been particularly focused on since learning about them on a writing course (via Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium): quickness and lightness. 

Train Dreams is a slim volume, yet captures all of Grainier’s long adult life, managing to include seemingly extraneous but always important detail: the moment Grainier visits a country fair and takes his only flight in a light aircraft being one. We move swiftly yet delicately through his narrative, with a clear sense of the man and his environment that is set up so sparsely it seems miraculous. That is the quickness. 

The lightness lies in the way Johnson makes such a fleeting narrative have such emotional impact. He does not give us access to the inside of Grainier’s head in any obvious way. Rather we see his repeated return to the burned out site of his home, the choice he makes to set up camp alone, his habit – never painted as macabre or eccentric – of howling along with the wolves in the woods sometimes. 

It is this wolf connection which brings the story to its climax, again in a scene so plainly written that the emotion appears to come entirely from the reader. It put me in mind immediately of another story - Angela Carter’s ‘Peter and the Wolf – which I’ve been reading in preparation for discussion with the Word Factory Short Story Club in November.

I’d gone looking for a great Angela Carter story for the group to read, and had so many in mind, but re-reading this one reminded me just how visceral and sexual Carter’s writing can be, even concerning children and animals (and not in a gross way). It is also an exercise in quickness (in this case in a way much more reminiscent of a fairy tale): in three lines we pass through seven years; in a sentence here and there we understand a boy’s fascination with a wild girl and her female anatomy.

In both Carter’s and Johnson’s tales, a fleeting connection is made with wild child, a feral girl who lives with the wolves and is therefore unreachable. In both tales the male protagonist both enjoys the connection but appears to accept the distance between him and the wolf girl. I find this lack of desire to entrap or tame deeply appealing. Even though I don’t think it means quite the same thing in these two stories, I am tempted to conclude that both stories are about accepting loss, not of the obvious things such as a home or a wife, but of a part of us that civilisation does not permit.

I'd always recommend Angela Carter, but if you're not familiar with Denis Johnson and want to discover another great writer, try Train Dreams or his short story collection, Jesus' Son.

And if you’d like to join a discussion of Angela Carter’s 'Peter and the Wolf'at the Word Factory in November, check the details here.