Who Reads Short Stories?

I do.  I have a fairly good collection of them now, but I think I must be in the minority, if the state of our local library and bookshop shelves are anything to go by.  To find any short story collections or anthologies in either can take a lot of searching.  Asking for a specific title or author is a matter of luck, or ordering in.

Whatever might be said about the role of the publishing industry in supporting, or not supporting, short fiction, the hard truth is that few people choose to read it.  Most British fiction readers prefer the novel, and the public book-shelves reflect this.  I say this because I have talked to a lot of readers over the last ten years, both as a tutor of creative reading groups, and creative writing groups, and because I know that what my students have told me mirrors my own experience.

As I grew up the print I read got smaller, the illustrations disappeared and the books got thicker.  I read one or two collections of ghost or horror stories as well, but mostly my friends and I bought, borrowed and swapped longer and longer narratives.  We were aiming for novels.  School too was pushing us that way.  They asked us to write short stories so that we could demonstrate our understanding of punctuation and grammar, but for literature, we would study, The Novel.

Our first grown-up novels were like contraband, passed around secretly.  Before long we were reading them openly.  I might occasionally go back to a childhood favourite, but in secret.  In public, I did not go near the children’s shelves again, and neither did my friends.  By the time we left school I had a strong novel-reading habit.

I did read a few short stories as I came across them, mostly in magazines.  I remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and a collection by a modern writer.  I remember because of my disappointment.  I could see that the sentences were well written, and I knew that these were important writers, but surely these were not stories.  Where were the plots?

No wonder I didn’t get them.  I had approached those two collections exactly as I did a novel.  I turned from one story to the next, often without pause, simply because the pages were numbered consecutively.  It was a long time before I went back to them.  It took a night class and a new approach to writing before I read them as I should have.

I wish I had learned earlier that I did not need a degree course to appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted story.  We learned the skills in English Lit at school.  I just hadn’t understood how to adapt them.

Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem.  The great British short story writers of the 1920s and 30s knew this.  H.E.Bates, in his book, The Modern Short Story, (1972) wrote that, after the first world war the new generation of writers, ‘needed and sought as a form something between lyric poetry and fictional prose.’  He credited Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard in, ‘assisting the English short story to a state of adult emancipation.’

His study may be forty years old, but I cannot disagree with his analysis.  I only wish that more people could see it.

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Driven to Read; Driven to Write

I have a confession:  I have a lot of books.  It feels like I have always had a lot of books.

Most of the ones I grew up with were inherited.  Many had stained cloth covers or pictures of perfectly groomed girls who went to boarding schools, but I read and re-read them all.  I was an indiscriminate reader, as happy with the stories in the Arthur Mee encyclopedias as I was with my ladybird books, Enid Blyton, Georgette Heyer or the pulp fiction I bought at jumble sales.

As soon as it became known that I was ‘a reader’ books flowed into my life.  They did not just arrive for Christmas or my birthday, I became a drop off point for unwanted volumes.  These were usually dusty, with damage to the cover or fly-leaf.  My main supplier was my Grandfather, who trawled junk shops and auctions for bargains.  In this way, I began to build a substantial and varied library.

Luckily, my parents saw this as a good thing.  They supplied me with extra shelves as required, and so, despite occasional suggestions that I might have outgrown Dick and Jane books, my collection grew.  I waded through dense Victorian novels as enthusiastically as I gorged on fairy tales, and stacked them all neatly into my wall of books.

If a story had hooked me I carried that book about.  When it was really good I read under the desk during lessons; on the school bus (despite my motion sickness) and as I walked around.  Most of those books I forgot soon after starting the next one, but some were powerful. Robinson Crusoe was read amongst the daisies on the lawn and Lorna Doone belongs to a wet autumn afternoon curled up in the armchair.  I could list more.

I held onto those books for a long time, because for a long time my love of stories was confused with my enjoyment of the object.  I liked turning the page.  There were qualities to admire, even in the cheapest editions.  Tissue thin pages and tiny print meant a substantial story; pages as thick as blotting paper with large heavy lettering meant a quick read.  Remember, I did say I was an indiscriminate reader.

All of this reading was certainly connected with my secret desire to write, but as my teachers observed, being a ‘good reader’ did not improve my spelling, punctuation or grammar.  Instead, I was an excellent day-dreamer and a poor scholar.  Of course, my teachers had no idea I had a secret ambition.  Schools teach us to read for meaning, and that is a broad and sensible ambition for the majority.  I left school with a faint feeling that something had been missed out.

I continued to expand my library, but my writing stumbled.  It took more than one creative writing course for me to understand that I had been taught how to read as a reader, when I needed to read as a writer.  I resisted knowing it.  I was good at reading, and I liked writing stories, so how could reading possibly be my problem.

Someone had the answers, and I hoped they had written a book.

Writing Blocks – strategy 1

So I’ve had this blog site for five months and, apart from some occasional fragments about gardening, all I’ve really done is make lists and dither about creating suitable content.  Of course, I have all sorts of great excuses to justify this inactivity, but I logged on this morning because I have now admitted to myself that all my reasons for not writing this blog have been exactly what I warn my students about: displacement activities.

Okay, so I haven’t been washing the kitchen floor rather than write this (though I do keep the house clean, honest), or tidying my bookshelves, but I have invented a whole raft of reasonable excuses, and what they come to, is fear.

They are, of course, the same fears that inhibit most writers at some point:

  1. What can I write about that has not been written before?
  2. Why would anyone want to read about what I think?

I tell my students that they have to develop strategies to get around that kind of thinking or nothing would ever get written.  ‘If you don’t write it,’ I say, ‘someone else will.  Not in the way you would have done, but someone will do something so close to it that it will feel like they stole your idea.’

They say, ‘That’s all very well, but what if I’m not good enough?’

I tell them, ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try, so I’m going to help you put that first word on the page.’

Then I set them an anti-displacement activity exercise.

One of them goes like this:

  • Read this list of well-used displacement activities.

Washing up

Walking the dog

Cleaning the car

Tidying the room

Mowing the lawn

Cleaning the windows

  • It is a terrible list, isn’t it?  But this is how far some of us will go to avoid writing.  If we let this kind of thinking get a hold on us we will soon have immaculate households, but have nothing written down.
  • How strong are these excuses really?  It can be tough making time to write.
  • Displacement activities are habits, just like smoking or chocolate.  All we have to do is break our habit.
  • It can be difficult to break habits, ask a smoker, so we’re going to use some lateral thinking.
  • Look at the list again and find an activity that would not naturally occur to you.  Write it at the top of your page.
  • It is now your major barrier to writing, so create a strategy to side-step it. This is an opportunity to take a creative approach.   Think laterally and write a full page response to this problem.

I like this exercise.

But it occurs to me that in passing this exercise on now I have just completed a displacement activity of my own, as my intention when I switched on the computer was to complete the story I have been working on.  So, maybe all activities could be counted as displacements.

I’m sure there is something you should be doing instead of reading this.