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The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

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In Brief Praise of Bryson and Brooker


I’ve been meaning to sing the praises of two particular writers for some time. However perhaps I have found their work so enjoyable and admirable that I’ve been deterred from writing and attempting to sum up their brilliance, as it’s certain I’ll fall flat on my face in a puddle of failure. Perhaps broadcasting my enjoyment will in some way diminish it. Perhaps I’m embarrassed of elevating these men to the status of idols and role models when I neither write funnily enough to be considered in the same humorous bracket as them, or seriously enough to be amused by their ramblings from afar, occasionally distracted from the rigours of my precise, academic dissections of culture and politics by their simple gags.

I don’t think the craft of these two men is simple or easy though, although embracing the merits of simplicity can often be an important part of their success. It’s a far from facile task to be simultaneously intelligent and laugh out loud funny. Of course one can write cleverly and with wit, but that sort of writing rarely plucks an audible chortle from the depths of the reader’s throat. These two writers share three qualities that I admire and often strive for in my own work: 1) they’re hilarious, 2) they have a knack of describing things in a spot-on, accurate, unique and truthful way and 3) an undertone of self-depreciation flows through their work that makes what they say accessible and allows a degree of more outrageous opinion and conviction.

These men then are travel writer Bill Bryson and critic Charlie Brooker. I’ve recently read Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island and Brooker’s Dawn of the Dumb, a selection of his Screen Burn and opinion pieces from The Guardian. Obviously in subject matter alone these writers are poles apart, but I’ve already pointed out some of their crucial similarities to me. They also have appealing differences. In Bryson’s book he showcases a subtle humour through the description of characters as well as more rib cage rattling stuff. He also brilliantly evokes a sense of place and has encouraged me to consider strongly exploring a number of locations anew and afresh in our glorious land, such as distant Edinburgh and the closer South Coast. In Brooker’s book he consistently demonstrates a commanding handling of contemporary culture and an ability to scathingly insult and pick apart any target he sets his sights on. He also has a wonderful understanding and sense of pessimism about the media age we live in and has mastered the art of the interesting review. His reviews often relate to his own life or a version of it and do not feel like reviews until some way into the article. They surprise and baffle, whilst always capturing something essential about the essence of the show, programme or film.

Indeed both men refreshingly offer up a lot of themselves into their work which gives it an engaging, “real” quality. They basically have a recognisable and distinctive style and voice which most writers, myself included, struggle to emulate, especially as they remain versatile and able to cover a spectrum of subjects at the same time. Often the qualities I have described so far blend in particular phrases and images. For example early on in Bryson’s book he demonstrates his knack for perfect description, “The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere” and later in the same paragraph does the same thing whilst being humorous and self-depreciating at the same time with this gem of a line: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than it”.

That sense of experience pervades Bryson’s writing and he talks hilariously of times when he was still acquiring his nous, and of times when despite his age events still get the better of him. As an outsider Bryson also has a wonderful way of describing the faults and habits of the British, such as a hilarious passage in which he accurately describes the way we discuss traffic and routes on the road with terrible serious and deliberation. He also appears to have picked up a sense of British reserve, for when he insults someone he often qualifies the statement or does so gently but hilariously. Occasionally his musings and rants on architecture become tiresome, but he instantly acknowledges this fact and it is worth it for the injection of identity into the writing.

If Bryson harnesses experience then Brooker channels a youthful fury into his writing and displays consistently the art of the preposterous, rude and yet eerily accurate insult. There are too many to list but a particularly memorable image deployed during a rant against posing Mac owners, Brooker dubs the Apple computers as “glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults”.  I always enjoy his articles, in the book and continually on The Guardian website.

In summary if I end up writing in a similar way or doing a similar job to these men later in life I shall be one happy bunny.