Do you read Short Stories?

This last week I started another set of short story appreciation classes. Again, one of the first questions that arises is, why don’t more of us read short stories?

Looking at how my reading habit developed provides me with the basis for a theory about that why question. Thinking about this takes me back to one of the first blog posts I wrote, back in 2012. Can I really have been posting for so long?  Where does the time go?

Those thoughts seem relevant enough that I’ve decided to repost most of the original: 

EH Shepard illustration for Winnie The Pooh, by AA Milne

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.

Photo by Pixabay on

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 also remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and another 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, (second edition 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 would seek it out.


Analysis by other authors also available, but I’d still recommend this one as a good starting place.

The Milliner’s Tale

The last few weeks I’ve been alternating between two hats.  For my reading group, I’m wearing a morphing, anarchic design, that has me flying through The Once and Future King.

Steampunk_Hat_PNG_Clipart_PictureI’ve been enjoying the way White plays with history, rippling time so that events shift in and out of period, and juggles with our ideas about the characters who make up the Arthurian Legends.  I’m so comfortable with my head-gear that once donned, I forget I’m wearing it.

Like any extreme fashionista, I am a devoted follower of my latest mode.  So for a moment I’m taken aback when some of the group say that they find TH Ladies-Steampunk-Hats by tag hatsWhite’s use of anachronism distracting.

This gives us some interesting discussion on techniques for reading texts that challenge us, and sets me thinking about writing intentions.  The explanation White gave to his friend was:

I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned…

Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.

Got that?

The idea that the past informs about the present can take a little getting used to, especially if you are someone who cares for exact dates.  When I put my Life-Writing-Hat on, I have to care, and yet, looking around, it seems to me that few of us live exactly within our time.  The things we use, wear, own and live with belong in variations to past days, weeks, months and years, even if we don’t live in historic houses.

It seems to me that reading history always requires some imaginative leaps.  Usually we do that from a present-day perspective.  What White does is to reverse this process, to comic effect, but also as an attempt at helping us understand something of what that past culture was like.  How do you set a story in medieval England without long explanations?  You translate every experience into a language children can recognise.

So I’m thinking of ways to translate dates and names into shareable texts, and what I see is that sometimes it takes an imaginative approach to explore truths.  After all, wouldn’t we all rather have a designer hat, that’s maybe a little shocking, than something mass-produced?hats


*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.


Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Writing what you know.

Sunday: after a session of research for some sense-of-place classes, I turned on the radio and found Poetry Please.  I’m not a regular follower of the show.  Usually at that time I’m busy working or enjoying myself.

Yesterday though, having decided that the season is shifting from salad to soup temperatures, midway through the afternoon I dragged myself back from the fifth century, and set about chopping veg.

Housework, huh? I loathe it.  Despite the end results of having a tasty dish, or even a comfortably clean house, I can’t see the processes for getting there as anything other than tedious.  Consequently, I’ve perfected a variety of self-fooling strategies to contend with my resistance, (multi-tasking for the sake of my sanity?) via BBC radio 4.

My wireless rarely lets me down, and sometimes gives me a shiver of synchronicity.

bee hive 3Yesterday’s theme was Bees, which chimed because it soon became clear that the chosen poets, and the producer of the show, had also done some detailed research.  If I’d needed reminding about why it’s important to gather background material, listening to this did the trick.

Writing is not just about the words you write, it’s about the way you’ve seen or experienced things, and the world view you provide.  Here’s one of the poems that caught my attention.

                       The Hive

                       By Jo Shapcott.

The colony grew in my body all that summer.
The gaps between my bones filled
with honeycomb and my chest
vibrated and hummed. I knew
the brood was healthy, because
the pheromones sang through the hive
and the queen laid a good
two thousand eggs a day.
I smelled of bee bread and royal jelly,
my nails shone with propolis.
I spent my days freeing bees from my hair,
and planting clover and bee sage and
woundwort and teasel and borage.
I was a queendom unto myself.

Look at the way Shapcott has used technical detail.  Here aren’t dry facts, and she doesn’t give the impression of a glancing gathering of scientific terms.  Here is an imaginative involvement between nature and self.   And what happens when I hear it?  Well one outcome is I’m intrigued.  I look it up and read it, again and again, and think about that tingle I’m getting.  Could it be that I too feel the beginnings of a colony growing inside my body?

bee 7

Shades and shadows.

Hi there, me again, posting another blog.  How long have we been meeting like this now?

Are you beginning to feel that you know me?  I hope so.  I’ve told you so much about what I think, do, like and dislike that I sometimes wonder if this blog looks like therapy.

I’ve been using the ‘me’ and ‘I’ approach, known (technically) as writing in the first person.  I’ve created a voice on the page, or perhaps I should say screen, that has its own idiosyncrasies, and hopefully convinced you that I’m a living, fully-rounded person, not just a flat fictional character.

Detail from Humphrey Newton's notebook, 1497

Detail from Humphrey Newton’s notebook, 1497

I’ve been confiding in you, and since I hope I haven’t offered you anything offensive or shocking, you’ve been inclined to believe me, haven’t you?  Might I even claim to have gained some degree of trust?

Well, of course, there was that lapse, last October when I abandoned blogging without warning, and disappeared for several months.  But let’s slide over that for the moment, and concentrate of content. That’s been sound, hasn’t it?

Tricky thing, pinpointing truth.  I was flicking through some old notebooks today, and came across one with some Dennis Potter quotes I’d copied out for a university project, and since one of them has been resonating, I thought I’d share it with you:

…apparently autobiographical forms are very powerful.  It’s…a method of appearing to inhabit one person’s head in a ‘truthful’ way.

The authenticity of the background and the surface detail is therefore guaranteed, as is the emotion, which gives me the licence to introduce and explore emotions that are not mine, that are fiction.


Why Gove Shouldn’t Kill the Mockingbird

Seems to me this is something we should all think about, and this blog says what I feel so succinctly that it seems the best thing for me to do is re-blog it on my pages. Hope you find it as worthy a cause to shout about as I do.

Interesting Literature

Regular readers of this blog may know that we at Interesting Literature are rather fond of the following story about the genesis of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story goes that Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas, on condition that she give up work and write. By any standard of measurement, she used the time off work wisely: she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It was published in 1960 and remains her only novel. Harper Lee – or Nelle Harper Lee, to give her her full name – is now 88 years old, but her one novel has done enough by itself to secure her reputation. It has sold over 30 million copies.

This morning, it was reported that Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, has removed To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the school GCSE syllabus. Gove…

View original post 668 more words

The guided-reading-group.

‘How does it work then?’ I was asked the other day.  ‘Do you all read at the same time, aloud?’

It was a timely question.  I’m hoping to start a guided-reading-group in a new area in September, and I’ve been wondering not just where to advertise, but how to do it.  Publicity not being my strong-suit, my usual system has been to describe the book that the course is based on, and hope to tempt or intrigue people who either already love the book, or have thought they might like to read it one day.  That blurb goes out in the WEA brochures, on it’s web-site, and here on my blog.  More locally, WEA branch volunteers and I put up posters.

I’m blushing here.  This demonstrates an abysmal failing in creativity and imagination.  I’ve been drifting along, putting in minimal time and thought to what is one of the keys to a successful course, recruitment.

In the past I concentrated on where to place publicity.  That’s been useful.  I’ve learned the value of visibility, and these days I’ve usually got cards, posters, fliers and brochures in pockets and bags, ready to hand around.  But let’s be brutally truthful, I had become complacent, even thinking of myself as efficient.

So, as I was explaining the format to my questioner, ‘The reading all happens at home, between classes,’ I was also thinking about how effective my publicity really was.

‘So then what do you do?’ he said, hitting the vital nail on the head.

Bee swarm

Bee swarm

‘Well,’ I said, ‘we discuss what we’ve read, and I bring along some questions that I think might add to the discussion, and some extra information that might affect the way we think about the writing, usually as a short presentation.  Then we compare our ideas about that.  I might give some background about the author, or consider how the book was written, or what was happening at the time, and how we think the book fits in with modern ideas and other stories.’  I paused.

How do you describe something that is meant to flex around the divergent interests of each group?

I’ve been guiding reading-groups for ten years now.  The class I started with was based on an anthology of short stories. I’ve delivered it to several groups since then.  It provides a lovely cross-section of writers and styles, and of story-writing principles and practices.

I can’t predict what will delight, interest, entertain, confuse, shock or repel a reader.  Each group takes each discussion in a new direction.  Some of the stories are difficult reads that raise questions about the functions of writing and reading.

Each reader brings a new slant to my understanding of what a story is saying and how it works.  Did they like it?  Why?  If not, why not?  Can I persuade them to read it differently, show them something intriguing about it?

Together we explore the how and why of each text.  For readers, it adds a new dimension to the way they think about books and writers.  For writers, it provides a better understanding of the endless flexibility of fiction.

Do we risk losing sight of the story when we start investigating it?  Shouldn’t reading be about losing yourself?  Shouldn’t it be just about the words on the page?

I would answer yes, in varying degrees, to all three questions.  Because, can’t reading sometimes also be about the spaces between the words, too?  And if they’re there, isn’t it good to be able to explore their possibilities in company of some other interested and curious readers?













Words and meanings

At Liverpool, during my first year at the university, one of the compulsory modules was Interpreting Poetry.  Each Monday morning we met to look in depth at a single poem, for two hours.

There were nine poems, chosen chronologically to demonstrate the development of poetry.  Beginning with Beowulf and ending with Sylvia Plath’s Daddy, it was an introductory selection of well-known titles.  We read them so that the tutors could introduce us to various theories, and we read them so that we could practice critical responses.  We looked at what a poem said and how it said it, and we wrote some short essays.

Did you note that, ‘short essays’ phrase?  It trips so glibly off the tongue that it’s easy to impossible water featuremiss the significance of it.  What it refers to are pages of interpretations about a single piece of writing.  Most of those poems, even stretched out carefully, did not fill a single sheet of paper, but we found a lot to say about them.

Poet, I read in my notes from those classes, comes from the Greek, ποειν (poyine), meaning to make, to create, to produce, to compose, to write.  Reading further, I find that what distinguishes poetry from prose, is the presence of a rhythm and/or rhyme scheme.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun Prose as,

Language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure (in contrast with verse or poetry).

There’s a more comprehensive comparison on Wikipedia, if you’re interested in going further down that road.

However, I’m going back to the OED, where I find that the first written reference to ‘prose’ is in the Wycliffite Bible of 1382.  As I travel down the next eight definitions of prose, and (incidentally) the next seven centuries, prose takes on additional meanings. It is a story, narrative or statement: it is plain, simple and matter of fact; (often with negative connotations) and even, dull, commonplace or turgid.  Poor old prose, what a litany.

Taken alone, the plain, simple and matter of fact might seem to be something to aspire to: perhaps to imply truthfulness.  But I can’t say I like the rest.  Besides, poems also tell truths, don’t they?

So I check out the compounds section.  Phew, this sounds more creative.  All I have to do is put prose with another word, such as book, satire, work, author, dramatist, or fiction.

Well that’s a relief, for a moment there it looked like prose was not going to add up to much.  Maybe I could aspire to be a prose-poet writing poetic-prose.  The OED defines that as, ‘writing that has a poetical character.’ Hmm. So that’s what those nine weeks of studying were for.

All I have to do is apply the principles I learned through deconstructing other people’s poetry to my writing.  Simple.

Isn’t it?

Looking for Structure


off the camera hard-drive 020The plumbing has gone wrong in our bathroom.  It’s not too serious, no flooding, just a constant dripping in the cistern.  I’m not sure why we thought taking the lid off was a clever idea, neither of us are practical.  I know where the stop-tap is, and he can wire a plug or reset the trip-switch, but we should have known better than to unscrew a modern flushbox without making notes.

The old toilet, the one we replaced because it kept leaking, had an old-fashioned ballcock.  There was a brass lever with a plastic float on the end, and a bit to unscrew so that we could replace the washer.  See, I even know a couple of correct terms for that one.

The new one though, that’s a complicated system of nylon levers, tubes and boxes that were holding the lid in place.  So, as soon as we undid the top we began to dismantle the mechanism, and now we’re stuck.  The only kind of deconstruction and construction I’ve ever been any good with is the literary sort.

This means, that I can see how the saga of our toilets could become a metaphor for story on several levels, but can’t figure out how those nylon tubes slot back together.  So let’s set aside that trail of plumbing-innuendo I am working hard to avoid, and think about short story structure.

We start, surely, with the simple linear plot: a beginning followed by a middle that leads to an end.  Nothing neater.  Those linear plots may be as old as speech, and they’re not worn-out yet.  They make a lot of readers and listeners and writers happy, and don’t be misled by the word ‘simple’, pulling off a successful story is no easy task.  If it’s going to work properly everything has to fit neatly, just like that cistern.

The advantage of something straightforward is that it’s open to re-interpretation.  Technicians can make dynamic or sophisticated designs based on the principles of collecting and releasing water: writers can follow or work against the form.

Only there’s a ‘B’ word to use here.  It’s a ‘But’, because they have to know and understand the form first.  Okay, some people appear to be natural story-tellers, and have an instinctive understanding of what is needed to engage us with a tale.  Do they?  Are we sure?  Is it really down to natural genius?

Let’s say it is.  Where does that leave the rest of us?

How about with the trainee plumbers, mechanics, watch-menders and technicians, taking the backs off stories and opening them up to see how they work?

Tolstoy and the Reading Group

This week we finished reading Anna Karenina.  My conclusion?  You should read it too.  Sure, see the new(ish) film, it’s great, and manages to include the main themes and majority of the story artfully.  I loved the way the scenes intersected with each other, and the way they used theatre and dance.  The casting was, mostly, great too.

Sorry Kiera Knightly, but you were not Anna Karenina.  You are far too thin.  You should have been cast as Dolly, and wouldn’t it have been interesting for you to be playing against your looks at this stage in your career?

Oops, side-tracked.  What I’m trying to say is that this novel is worth reading even if you have seen the film, and regardless of whether you loved or disliked that.

Read it even if you already know what happens with Anna, because the journey is what counts. That’s true in all good fiction, surely, otherwise we’d just read the first and last chapters of any book: the first and last paragraphs of a short story.  Besides, does any reader begin reading about Anna Karenina without knowing her ending?

Read it because Anna Karenina is a gloriously huge story.  I’m not just talking about how many pages it fills, I’m thinking about how the whole thing works.

Tolstoy is a master puppeteer, controlling characters and balancing ideas all the way through.  He creates a picture of Russia at a moment of change, when its society is still trying to work out what being Russian means.  True, we’re talking aristocrats, largely, but should we dismiss it for that?  After all, what a vast and unlikely collection of ideals they are.

Besides, other great Russian writers will step forward to fill-in the social gap.  What Tolstoy does is recreate imperial Russia with all its fashions, ideas and worries, and he does it so artfully that even though he is criticising, the public mostly loved his story.  Their engagement was such that they waited anxiously for each new section over a period of four years, with long gaps between some of the sections.  Many wrote to him with advice, suggestions and questions.

Okay, Anna Karenina wasn’t written in English, and of course there are technical arguments that can be made about authorship when someone stands between us and the original. However, interesting though that discussion would be, I’m going to count it as something of a sidetrack.  It doesn’t seem to offer much of an incentive to read.

The story remains Tolstoy’s, despite the translators.  If you don’t believe me, compare a few pages.  The structure, the events, the characters and characterisation, those are Tolstoy, and what a joy they are.  From the hedonistic Stiva to that dry stick, Sergei, and all the rest of them, they leap off the page.  Including even, Kostya’s dog, Laska, who leads us on a hunt at the expense of her master’s dignity.

I admit here that there were sections I skimmed through on my first reading. But reading it again for working on with the group I realised I had missed out.    This is a story of many facets.  Tolstoy wrote with care, and edited and rewrote and edited again.  There are sections that could be lifted out and stand-alone as short stories, but they belong within the text.  They are part of a large picture that we, the reader must build.

Tolstoy provides us with scenes so that we can interpret or re-interpret the events.  His is a modern method of teaching, not direct lecturing, but leading us to understand through the questions we ask.

Tolstoy, 1876: “I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.”

This is a ‘modern’ novel in many ways.  Its subjects are the state of marriage and sex, amongst other things.  It includes a long and detailed description of a woman giving birth to her first child, and an account of breast-feeding at a time when high-class women did not mention pregnancy, but used a series of euphemisms to imply their condition.

What else?  Check out the dialogue.  It’s fresh, believable, interesting and varied.  Conversations flow, not just in one direction, but to include inuendo, gossip and asides.  They deliver information without appearing to clunk, and incorporate actions and descriptions seamlessly.

His descriptions are spare, but telling, and his use of the interior monologue would influence the modernists, particularly James Joyce.  If you want to know more, there are thousands of good criticisms to look at, but don’t take their word for it, or mine, go away and read or re-read it for yourself.