Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Save Me from the Short Story

This week the books blog Vulpes Libris pays tribute to the short story while yet paradoxically providing an insight into the general prejudice against the form. Yesterday's post was a round-up of favourites (and the Bitch is pleased to have her own collection offered by the esteemed Dovegreyreader). However, the blog's coordinator Leena ended up asking for contributions from other bloggers, since she drew a blank with her fellow foxes, who confessed to little interest in or knowledge of the form.

While today's blog offers an appreciative review of the great collection The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets by Sophie Hannah, it also includes a contribution from Elaine of Random Jottings who, although going on to recommend several (canonical) short story writers (including the lengthy stories of Henry James), says this:
My main problem with this genre is that the narrative can be over far too quickly and just when you are getting interested in the characters and situation you turn the page and find that that is it, you have come to the end. I have lost count of the number of times I have done this and thought, oh damn just when it was getting interesting. When I am reading fiction I like something solid, something I can really get into so I somehow feel cheated with a short story and irritated that I am not going to know what happens next. I gather that short stories are regarded as being an art form on their own, incredibly difficult to write and anybody who can do them properly is regarded as a literary giant. This may be true but when I pick up a collection of short stories and find they are described as ‘exquisite vignettes’ (and yes this has happened), my main reaction is to run screaming from the room.
There is of course a whole essay to be written about the implicatons of this for the ways in which we read and our expectations of what we read...


Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is true, n'est-ce pas, that reading a rollicking good plotted novel is a totally utterly, million miles away experience to reading a good short story.

I fear Elaine from Jottings (don't know the writer or Jottings...) has given her preference away when she says she wants to know 'what happens next'.

I love a gread plotty novel. I read 'The Eagle Has Landed' on holiday a fortnight ago, and loved it. A real page-turner.

But did I 'care' for the characters? Nope.

Did I feel anything while I read, bar enjoying the entertainment value? Nope.

Do I remember any of the characters? yes, one, who was portrayed in depth, relatively, but only relatively, to the rest. I accepted the others, as I would have accepted a puppet as a child acting out a story.

A sharper example of this feeling is the feeling one gets after reading The Da Vinci Code. No one is real, no one makes you 'care'.

And after I finished the book (Eagle), was I sad? Nope. I picked up the next book on the shelf and started that.


read The Ledge, and you

can't (if youve read properly) go on to the next.

You are not the same person as you were at the start opf the story.

your head is full of questions..


would I do this??

what makes someone do that?

Why is it set 'then'?

what is the writer trying to say... over and above the words on the page?


There is such a gulf... and one of the huge disservices of the media today is to try to persuade readers that a good short story can be read fast, in a snatched moment.

It simply cant. And if readers (like Elaine) try to do so, they wiull be sadly disappointed.

Elizabeth Baines said...

V, you're bang on the nail with your point about short stories not being a 'fast read for a fast culture', a point I'm always making myself. People who try to sell short stories in that way are in my view doing the form a great disservice.

Also re narrative: Elaine does appear to voice a very common complaint about short stories here (and I think someone else did in yesterdy's VL post): although short stories CAN be narrative, you're bound to be sorely disappointed if that's all you read short stories for - their greatest strengths lie in other directions, as you say, and in opening up rather than closing down possibilities (both on the narrative and thematic level).

Elizabeth Baines said...

PS: The fact that short stories need to be read WITH ATTENTION, slowly and carefully was strongly made at the Edge Hill award ceremony by two speakers including winner Claire Keegan who commented ironically, 'No wonder they're unpopular'.

That's So Pants said...


Sadly, I think many short story collections include opening chapters or even speculative scribblings for proposed novels from well-known writers. I recently read a collection that included the first chapter of Hanif Kureishi's 'Intimacy', presented as a short story. In that instance, a reader might rightly think - well, what happens next?



Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Pants,

Good point.


Douglas Bruton said...

All that has been written here makes perfect sense... I love reading rounded and complete short stories and by short I mean the 15 pages or less in a book... Whereas I used to read much longer stories... like Tolstoy and Gogol and James and Lawrence... there has a been a noticeable decline in the length of short stories in recent years... most comps looking for under 4000 or even 3000... and maybe that contributes to this sense that the thing is over just as it has begun to interest the reader - at least sometimes.

Maybe there is a case here for the novellla to enjoy more recognition and for longer stories to find their way into the public domain.