Sunday, February 09, 2014

What's a Story?

We grow up with stories. Aesop's fables, Bible stories, Famous Five and Secret Seven, Dennis the Menace and the Avengers, SF or school stories....

Yet when we say "short story" I think we're talking of something different - a genre of (mostly) 20th century literary fiction.

Whereas there are poets who only read poetry, it would seem to me a little odd to just read short stories, even if you like them - surely the short story is a subset of prose fiction? Yet that stories are different than novels, is also generally true. But then you read something like Zadie Smith's recent stand-alone story "The Embassy of Cambodia" and it has the same heft and scope - and open-endedness - as her novels, yet at the same time is tighter, more focussed, more self-contained.

What have we got then between the open-ended and the self-contained... there hovers the story.

Some of the most famous stories we have are from writers me more often associate with the novel - such as E.M.. Forster's "The Machine Stops" or Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily". Then there are the specialists in the form - Chekhov, Mansfield, Munro. Modernism took to the short story: James Joyce's "The Dubliners", Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. but maybe this was a feature of the market  - of little magazines and high paying mass market publications?

Writers have always written them, but not all writers. There are quite a few novelists who prefer the bigger canvas; such as Anthony Burgess whose vast writings gives us just one later book of short stories. And because a short story can actually be quite long - (that Forster is 12,000 words, David Foster Wallace's shorts often ran to many, many pages) - its hard to generalise.

But generalise we do. We're living in an age of the short story it seems - with new prizes for the genre from the Sunday Times and the BBC (though both seem to prefer established novelists given the choice), a couple of well regarded "best collection" prizes, panels on the short story at most literary festivals. It should be an easy read in busy times - though the evidence is that we don't read a short on the bus, preferring a few pages of the big novel, and that good short stories require a level of attention that we don't always have to give.

With a proliferation of creative writing courses you can see the appeal of the short - it can be read in a sitting. There is somewhere probably it can get published, whilst an unpublished novel languishes unforgiven for years in the bottom drawer. The story has an after life as an idea for a poem-film or a short play. It exists, oddly enough, in that strange cottage industry world familiar to contemporary poetry - of little magazines and live readings. Often poets (who sometimes don't read novels) write them.

The only thing that made me think I could write a novel was that I had written a few stories. I knew I could knock together 5,000 words or so, with a denouement of sorts. What was a novel other than a dozen or so of those of these denouements, connected together into a rough plot? (The younger me was remarkably naive, or deliberately self-deceiving.) Yet I remember - at a very early stage - perhaps when I was in my first or second year at university (reading - revelation that it was - Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" or Fitzgerald's stories, or "Men Without Women") despairing a little that outside of Science Fiction (a disregarded genre even more then than now) I couldn't really write a story. My SF was somewhat of the William Gibson kind, even - I think - before I'd read Gibson. (I'd been reading Blish, William Burroughs and comic books, as well as watching "Blade Runner" and "2001" before I'd even heard of "Neuromancer"). Actually my true SF hero was a true genius of both that genre and the short story itself, Harlan Ellison's whose "Jeffty is Five" is a better story than I will ever write.

I had started writing seriously that summer of '86 - and had laboriously typed up and stapled a number of articles, poems, two or three SF stories, and an ongoing serial into a vague fanzine. A short story could be about anything, I reckoned, it was just writing after all...

...I was asked a few years ago when I first took my writing seriously. Part of me wanted to say "always" but I know exactly when it was. In my 3rd year at university I wrote a long short story about a girl with learning difficulties called "Elly Condor." I can't quite remember the story itself - though it exists somewhere - but I rewrote it several times before writing up a fair copy which I was so pleased with I remember giving to a friend to read. She was very complimentary. The story was perhaps the first non-SF one that was entirely out of my imagination (though I think choosing an inarticulate narrator came from reading "The Sound and the Fury.")

After university it was novels that took up my time.... yet a novel was a hard sell even back then - and took forever. Wanting to share my writing with a penfriend (who years later would turn out to be internationally acclaimed for her short stories) I'd written a story as an "application" to the M.A. in creative writing at UEA. Rather than just send the typescript I again went dozen the fanzine route - and realised I'd need to write some more to make it into a proper magazine. Over the next few years this "fanzine" taught me how to write short stories - every couple of months I had another 20 or so pages to fill. By the time I got to do my MA in novel writing at Manchester, I'd quite a few short stories that I was proud of.

I mentioned SF as a formative influence - and much of my writing remained somewhat "slipstream" - if not exactly futuristic - but I was also massively influenced by American writing and it was a trip to the US in 1995 which really informed my writing - and the story that I sent to UEA was one of those "American Stories". Again, writing outside of myself gave me a confidence in short story writing that I never quite managed in a novel: the long length tended to gobble me up and throw me out the other side. It needed everything of me; whilst a short story could have an idea.

So since 1996 I've written short stories regularly. A few of these got published in small magazines. I don't even think this was my aim. I certainly didn't always spend enough time on the 2nd/3rd drafts - but what I lost in haste, I gained in bravery. If a story didn't turn out that great, I put it down as an experiment. Some of these became key stories.

Over the last decade my fiction sometimes feels like its dwindled to a trickle - a couple of finished stories a year maybe. One thing is that I've written so many. Maybe I've written enough? I've not a "public" for them after all. Nowadays I tend to come up with an idea and then try and find the form to make it work. Sometimes this is traditionally linear, other times wilfully experimental. I do rewrite now - but realise I can sometimes write the life out a story.

I sometimes read short story collections and marvel at a writer who attacks the same subject from different angles, or is exploring a single imaginative universe or character group, or style. My debut short story collection should be called "a compendium", its that diverse. I wish the empty page wasn't always so daunting. I wish there was finished story to complete the title I began in 1999 "Nathan Adores a Vacuum" or that I'd found a way to write the World War II referencing story "the Dugway Proving Grounds" that I began nearly a decade ago. I also wish the story I wrote last week wasn't quite so wilful.

In other words, when I read about the renaissance of the short story I do wonder what we mean. For me, its a key element of prose fiction - it can sometimes be part of a novel, or a number of stories can be the equivalent of a novel; other times the best short stories seem to be perfect one-offs, literary equivalents of Martha and the Muffins' "Echo Beach" (and I had a period of using song prompts to help me write stories, so have a story with that title as well!)

For me, I think the short story as we seem to see it in its "renaissance" is not actually the short story as I see it or even as I write it. This seems a genre of the "proper short story" perhaps subtitled "the Hemingway story" or "the Chekhov story" or "the Cheever story" or "the Munro story."  Its not to knock those - but you know the type; a disembodied scene with characters that you wonder if they could ever possibly exist outside of fiction, meeting for something meaningful, and something is left unsaid. These things deservedly win prizes but they seem to belong to some kind of literary nostalgia circuit - for if the short story is really having a renaissance it has to be as some kind of experimental testing ground for new ideas. Outside of the increasingly crowded flash fiction world, I'm not sure I see that much of it - but please, point me in the right direction.... there or has there been a British collection that is as wayward as George Saunders book, or as wilfully strange as a David Foster Wallace one; or as keen to poke fun at the genre itself as Jennifer Egan's "Black Box?"

So, rant over, I don't really know if I love, like, or am indifferent to the short story - I think, like everything, give me "Jeffty is Five", "Career Move", "A Rose for Emily", "Hills Like White Elephants", "A Sad Day for Bananafish", lots of Helen Simpson, Andre Dubus and Lorrie Moore, and I'm a happy man. I like individual stories by a wide range of contemporary writers, some my friends (real world and Facebook), and on the odd occasion that my own get in amongst them, I'm pleased as punch -

- but I write them because I still don't know the answer to that provocation at the top of this blog post. I don't know. I don't know. And then, occasionally, just occasionally, I write one or read one, and go... "oh, that's it."

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