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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.

The i: Media revolution or pointless newspaper flop?


At Waterloo station the other day I finally succumbed to curiosity. I found myself staring blankly at a WH Smiths emblazoned with a small red letter “i”. In just one moment, demoralised and waiting for a train, all the hype and advertising culminated for me. It was only 20p, let’s see what all the fuss is about. I lugged my stuff over to the store, handed over my solitary coin and headed for a drink to dissect the nation’s latest news phenomenon.

Or is such a big deal? I sit here with two copies, having purchased a second for the purposes of writing this piece. And from the outside it doesn’t look so extraordinary. Sure I’m familiar with the concept, the image they’re trying to sell. It’s a concise compilation of news and opinion, an intelligent but manageable information snack to be devoured by your busy city type. It ought not to appeal so greatly here in my rural setting, and yet the first two local shops I tried were sold out yesterday. Not just a paper for commuters rushing through London terminals and underground stations then? Perhaps it does have some foundations of longevity; having said that, it could simply be the novelty buy of the moment.

If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “what on earth is i?” I am frankly astounded. I don’t believe you can have avoided the marketing blitz accompanying its release. It adorns the side of London buses, plasters newspaper stands and rules the ad breaks at times. The strap-line at the top of the front page reads: “As seen on TV: Britain’s concise quality paper”.  They’re fully aware of the exposure i is getting and I’m guessing the idea is to hook regular readers early. The dirt cheap price will be crucial to the appeal, as will the two key selling points; concise and quality. It’s broadsheet meat in tasty tabloid nuggets.

Essentially it’s a bite-size version of The Independent. The fact that it’s The Independent launching the i does bode well in many respects; The Independent is the newest established national paper in this country. Launched in the eighties it knew how to exploit gaps in the market with price, design, image and politics. Nicknamed the Indy, it used the slogan “It is. Are you?” at its birth in 1986. Such lines show that even back then this was a paper that knew how to bag itself a target market of aspiring intelligent types looking to distinguish themselves from The Guardian or The Times. It would be simultaneously liberal and opinionated, and respected and trusted. In 2003 it took on a tabloid format, which begs the question, why the need for the i?

The clue is in the name. The i is unashamedly jumping onto the Apple bandwagon. We arrive in a new decade, the teenies or whatever follows the noughties, grappling with the coming of the iPad. The iPad seems to herald a new media age in a lot of ways. Countless commentators and reviews argue over its purpose, with many concluding it does not have a particularly functional one. In technology the iPad is halfway between a laptop or netbook and a smartphone or iPod. It fails to do certain things these old staples do so well, whilst also doing some new things no one is quite sure whether we want yet. Most reviews also conclude that the iPad is so much fun, it scarcely matters what it’s for. It’s an inexplicable indulgence, until the content starts to catch up.

 But unavoidably the ethos around the iPad is the direction of travel, the way things are going. People want everything they do, everything they consume, to be aesthetically dazzling and finely crafted. They want to look cool when they read the news and they want to feel cool. They want it to be easy but still be well informed afterwards. They want colour and images. The i is the newspaper equivalent of the iPad; it’s well designed and bright and fun, but it hovers in a new uncertain territory between purposes. Is it broadsheet or tabloid? Paper or magazine? Light or heavy news?

At first I was reading the i trying to work out whether it lived up to its brief of “concise quality” sufficiently, and even if it did, whether it was good enough to warrant such a category of publication. I mean can’t even the busiest person simply selectively scan their favourite paper? I was judging each article to decide whether it had the depth of broadsheet and snappy digestibility of tabloid. The selection of topics for articles is certainly suitably intelligent, with nothing too light or smutty about cheap celebrities creeping in. On the snappy front the opening double page has a “news matrix” with summaries of the day’s top stories, so the reader has at least an overview of everything. This does seem surprisingly handy.

In fairness to most of the articles about serious stories, they do an admirable job of cutting right to the point without being patronising or watering the issue down. But unavoidably there is an unsatisfying lack of depth. Everyday there is a fairly substantial opinion piece however, which can’t be accused of cutting corners. Indeed the opinion section of the paper is a good example of successful fusion between manageable and satisfying content. An “opinion matrix” summarises views from other publications, a bold and genuinely informative move in keeping with The Independent tradition, adjacent to an article from one of their writers. I really like that it quotes other papers, and I imagine the average commuter without the time to buy and read a range, does too. There is only the one opinion piece per day though.

This week the content of the i has been somewhat heavy on anti-Murdoch sentiment, what with the ongoing hacking story and the takeover of Sky forever raging, which I found tiresome. It’s of course admirable to expose such stories, under reported in other papers, but it compromises the potential for other news and comment in such a small paper, and also The Independent tradition of staying above the fray (despite an undoubtedly left-wing reputation).

The television schedule is well designed, split as it is into categories with key programmes, and a smaller list with the all junk underneath. Ideal for those that work all day. There’s also a section called “iq” which seems to be dedicated to the likes of style and recipes and again has a good balance between brevity and depth. The arts area of the paper seems somewhat recycled each day, with film and theatre listings and descriptions; no reviews. Not being a businessman I wouldn’t know if the business section was adequate, but it has its own “news matrix” which seems a good, broad introduction to all the main action of the day. The sports pages are really quite short but do touch on all the main issues; football transfer gossip, Six Nations, Andy Murray.

After all this analysis though I remembered how crucial the comparison with the iPad is to understanding the i. Frequently I toy with it in those cavernous Apple stores, knowing full well I haven’t the funds for such an extravagance or even if I would use it at all, should I win the lottery or rob a bank. But every time I go in for a discrete fondle of the touch screen, that indescribable feeling Apple manufactures so well washes over me. That feeling of being at the forefront; the vanguard of technological advancement. As if I’m in an incredibly cool sci-fi film, not my mundane life. That feeling of childish play, somehow fused with the realisation you’ve arrived as an adult with the James Bond gadget to prove your maturity and success. Look at the tech they let me unleash! Behold the luxuries that make up my exciting everyday existence!

Like the iPad, the i is a symbol of a life style choice, a lot more than just a paper. Now it might be the case that your choice of paper has always been a significant indicator of outlook and ambition, but the i is a heightened version, harnessing the 21st century Apple fever. It popularises that choice and makes it available to the masses as a statement of intent. “Look at me, I am intelligent but too busy to stop, I’ve arrived!”

Even if you don’t consciously think this, the colourful design and appeal of the i put it on that similarly luxurious plain to the iPad. It really is well designed, easy to read and pretty to look at on some pages. And why shouldn’t intelligent news be a pleasure to look at? Why does it have to be bunched in dense text and an excruciating eyesore? Especially when you’re jammed in like sardines on the tube. The colour coded pages help you swiftly find what you’re looking for and the multitude of colour photographs let you feel the news, experience the world, rather than simply read about it. Like the touch screen of the iPad, the i feels interactive at times and immersive despite its concision.

One thing that really baffles me is the continually shabby state of The Independent website following the launch of the i. To truly capitalise on the stylish Apple-like aesthetic they’re cultivating with the i, they would lure people to their equally swish website. But for ages The Independent’s website has been the drabbest online newspaper around. Some would simply call it functional, with its white background and lack of trimmings. But a hideous mustardy brown colour is used across the top and the font is squat and awkward to read. It’s a real shame, because it’s so bad it often puts me off delving into the regularly insightful, impressive content, which has real depth that goes beyond the snippets in the prettier i.

I would do well not to push the comparison with the iPad too far. The i lacks the level of interactivity and excitement cutting edge technology like the iPad can provide. It is, at the end of the day, a slimmed down newspaper. But its design and marketing reflect a cultural trend. There’s nothing wrong with what the i is trying to achieve, and it’s admirable in fact to see something try and keep print publications fresh and competitive. The threats of the iPad and the internet could jeopardise journalism and courageous solutions are needed. The i does the right thing by embracing the challenge of our new aesthetically obsessed, Apple stuffed world, rather than denying it. With its colour, cool and seamless advertising spaces and refreshingly un-patronising news, the i has the potential to be more than an early 2011 fad. Crucially, at 20p, you may as well give this stylish “essential daily briefing” a whirl, before properly digesting your preferred daily in the evening.

Catfish


When I first heard about Catfish, it sounded like a ramshackle film cobbled together to capitalise on Facebook fever, and in particular, the enormous success of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Looking deeper, at the artwork and a synopsis of the plot, I was inclined to think the same thing. The visual design of the title and posters, whilst clearly modelled on the Facebook logo itself, unavoidably now conjure associations with The Social Network, a wonderfully shot, acted and scripted film that seems destined to claim best picture at the imminent Oscars ceremony. The vague summaries of the plot of Catfish all make it sound like the generic, potentially lucrative tale anyone would decide to tell about the phenomenon of social networking. It’s described as a “reality thriller” and the production companies settled on tag-lines like “Think before you click.”

But then there was the avalanche of positive critical comment surrounding the film. A quick check on Rotten Tomatoes will show up a healthy 81% fresh rating but dig deeper once again and you’ll find some reviews that give Catfish unbelievably glowing, game-changing references.  It’s enthusiastically endorsed by various newspapers; The Mail, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Telegraph and The News of The World. The decisive factor that swayed me to ensure I saw it a.s.a.p. however was the recommendation of characteristically cynical movie blog, Ultra Culture.

Ultra Culture hailed Catfish as its film of 2010. The explanation of this choice is eloquent and as funny as always and does an admirable job of trying to touch on all the big, intellectual reasons Catfish is so masterfully compulsive and spot-on, as well as the smaller reasons it’s a quality piece of filmmaking. Any review of the story will fail to capture the myriad of ways it could be interpreted. Such is its nature and its accurate reflection and encapsulation of the interconnectivity of our times.

Let’s start with those smaller reasons Catfish is just, plain and simple, good. It has a captivating original soundtrack, which perfectly complements the action of the story. In many ways the soundtrack is as varied as the narrative itself, encompassing everything from sentimental, heart-warming songs to lively, modern pieces which keep things interesting during transitional moments consisting mainly of screen-shots from a computer. These in-depth snippets of technology are crucial to the feel of the film; quotes from Facebook chats, pictures, YouTube videos or Google earth animations, all handled beautifully and interestingly. Catfish feels at once relevant and familiar, without ever becoming boring.

Then there’s the dubious documentary status of the movie. Catfish falls into that guaranteed hype-inducing category of projects that may or may not be staged. Most reviewers, myself included, conclude that Catfish does not feel faked, despite some clearly crafted moments. More importantly the majority of verdicts on Catfish state in black and white that they couldn’t care less whether or not the events are real. As David Edwards in The Daily Mirror says; “Is it real? When a film’s this good, that becomes secondary.”

What’s the general gist of this snapshot of contemporary life then? Well, as is so often the case with genuinely fantastic films, to say too much would spoil the experience. It’s also so many things and deals with so many themes, that it’s impossible to categorise. Essentially though Catfish is a refreshingly hands-on, unique take on the internet, and specifically relationships conducted over the web and purely by virtual means. The key figure, Nev, begins the film receiving inspirational packages from an eight year old girl, who paints. Her creations are increasingly based on Nev’s photography and then his life and appearance in general. Nev and his filmmaking friends eventually journey to meet his artistic pen-pal and her family. Nev’s even fallen for her older sister. But who are we to know what love really is?

In many ways the transformation of the film from an uplifting hymn to the connecting, liberating power of the web into something darker, is predictable. The warnings it holds about forged identities and the potential for sinister outlets are there. But as several reviews, including Ultra Culture’s, point out, Catfish is not meant to be a powerful cautionary tale about complacent trust online. What confirms this is the surprisingly insightful explanation of the title, delivered in working class tones by a simple character as the film concludes. Catfish, he explains, were used to exercise cod fish as they were shipped on long journeys. This kept their flesh fresh and stopped them becoming tasteless. We need enigmatic, metaphorical Catfish in our lives, to “keep us on our toes” and give life spicy variety.

To inadequately sum up then: Catfish is a gripping mystery, packed with incredibly emotional moments. Its twists and turns are always beguiling, stunning and (mostly) unpredictable. It is both sinister and disturbing, and heart-warming and stirring. At 83 minutes it’s the most concise and thrilling “documentary” you’re ever likely to see. It’s funny. Most importantly of all it’s a study of the realities of our modern existence. It highlights more themes than I can mention but ultimately uncovers the unifying, depressing deceptions of millions of lives. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.

 The Social Network is a worthy Oscar winner and a truly fabulous story about the origins of Facebook and the excesses of its creators. Catfish however, is the real movie about the internet, about the actual effects of social networking. I now understand the marketing around Catfish and it wasn’t all about jumping on the Facebook bandwagon. The Social Network was rarely about Facebook itself; Catfish explores some of the same universal themes of the human condition, and more, and is genuinely THE Facebook movie.

The best of today’s opinion in The Guardian: plus some music


A number of articles have caught my eye today, the best of which an exploration of the pitfalls of adaptations by Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. Principally she focuses on a foolhardy forthcoming adaptation of Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby, which is to star Leonardo DiCaprio and be directed by Baz Luhrman, who seems to only churn out turkeys of late (eg the dismal Australia). I found the article to be brilliantly insightful as well as accesible, as I have not yet read The Great Gatsby but Churchwell explains the nature of the book and how any film will inevitably fail to capture its crucial essence so well, without ever patronising. I find the whole business of transforming pieces between genres of immense creative interest, and enjoyed playing with the craft during my English A-Level. There are certainly many reasons for adapting great works if they are adapted well, but Churchwell makes a vital point that some qualities simply cannot be transferred and filmmakers and playwrights would often do better to acknowledge this fact. Her well expressed and insightful musings on Gatsby’s theme of possibility over actuality and the idea that a film adaptation is trying to realise the dream and therefore destroys it, seem particuarly spot-on. I am encouraged to read the novel and discover what the fuss is about, especially before I view the planned film.

The title of her piece is also a clever play on Dawkins’ The God Delusion, perhaps simply inspired by the Gs.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/15/great-gatsby-delusion

Also on The Guardian website is an articulate expression of the grievances of students following the Coalition’s recent announcement of planned education cuts. Lizzie Dearden, a student at York, highlights far more clearly and simply than I the devastating impact the cuts and raised fees will have and are having on young people, and how these impacts contradict the progressive message of economic recovery continually broadcast by the government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/16/liberal-democrats-betrayed-students

A final piece from The Guardian‘s opinion section is an interesting piece by their prolific commentator Polly Toynbee, investigating the government’s announcement of the development of a “happiness” index. Now even from my basic knowledge of philosophy and ethics and limited life experience, I can confidently state that happiness cannot be measured and in any case attempting to is nothing new; just look at the long history of Utilitarianism. However it does seem obvious as well that the concerns of voters are not purely economic and the development of a country and its world standing cannot simply be categorized through GDP alone. So like Polly in this article I applaud the attempts to broaden data, under whatever dubious banner (“well being” certainly stirs understandable derision), whilst also joining Polly in being clear that Cameron’s Conservatives take no credit for the changes, at a time when inequality is increasing and therefore well being declining.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/16/unhappiness-david-cameron-wellbeing

And to finish off, a link to a brilliant band. Their recordings simply do not compare to seeing their electrifying live performances, but nevertheless wonderful lyrics and uplfiting melodies can be found. Seek them out for the real experience but I give you Tankus the Henge:

http://tankusthehenge.bandcamp.com/album/tankus-the-henge