Tag Archives: expression

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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The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.

Booker Shortlist 2010


Room – Emma Donoghue
In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut
The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobsen
C – Tom McCarthy
The Long Song – Andrea Levy
Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

Ironically, given all the talk about the omission of quality humorous writing such as Ian McEwan’s Solar when the longlist was announced, the shortlist is now being hailed as the funniest in years. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen is seen as a properly comic tale, whilst the others have their elements according to the judging panel. All the hype around the shortlist is the surprise dropping out of both The Slap, the biggest selling book on the longlist and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. In truth neither of these omissions surprises me. I have read both books and enjoyed both but neither deserved to win. The Slap is an entertaining read that is well written at times but suffers from a number of fatal flaws in characterisation, narrative structure and content that meant it could never be a worthy winner. David Mitchell’s latest work is weaker than all his previous ones and it would therefore had been odd had this one finally got him a win. He struggled with the switch to a third person narrative viewpoint, over indulged when it came to including his historical research in the story and lost some of the originality and flair so synonymous with his earlier novels. My money is on C by Tom McCarthy (despite having read none of the shortlisted titles!) as I am most desperate to get me hands of a copy of this.

I was going to attempt a funny short story to go with this post, but that may have to wait until my moods shift. Stay tuned if interested I suppose.