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 Pexels.com

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.

Footnote:

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

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Which Shelf?

It was only after I’d checked the general novels and then the classics shelves that I thought of looking in the children’s books section.  Sure enough, there was T.H. White’s, ‘The Once and Future King’.  Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you, especially given the illustrations the publisher has used for the new cover.  51jAaoccw9L._SL190_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA190_Besides, ‘child’ covers a lot of time, anything up to…to…actually, now I come to think about it, I’ve no idea about this.  Looking back at my own history, I think my reading extended into the adult section somewhere around the time I started secondary school.  I wouldn’t like to pin that down specifically, mind, because for a long while I alternated, continuing with the children’s section for at least as long as I was in school.

I wasn’t just returning to the books I’d loved for years, the Famous Fives, school girl mysteries and the teenage ghost and horror collections etcetera.  I read contemporary writing for children too.  Sometimes these were recommendations, often they were random choices.  Which means, I suppose, that the covers attracted me.

Books, especially those chosen or read in public, are status symbols.  If you think that might only be true for children, and you’ve left that behind, let me ask what you would be willing to be seen reading on the bus or train?  Isn’t there a genre, or certain publishing house that you would not dream of being associated with?  What we carry brands us as directly as the way we dress.

Rumour has it that the popularity of kindle is partly based on it’s ability to disguise the genre being consumed.  There are some who claim that the rise in popularity of erotic fiction has only occurred because it can be read covertly.  I don’t know how true that is.

I do know that a lot of people are discussing the Fifty Shades sequence of novels, in public, but perhaps that’s just because of the publicity that surrounds it.  I hear a lot of, ‘Have you read it?’ ‘What do you think about the writing?’  (This can’t be the only book where a justification usually follows the admission, ‘Yes, I have..’ can it?)  I don’t hear many of those people admitting to reading other similar titles.

I also know that we only had one copy of ‘Fifty Shades’ donated to the bookstall at the local fete this year.  The first year any have turned up.

But I want to get back to T.H. White.  I think I was in my late teens when I first read The Once and Future King.  I still have that copy, though it’s now held together with an elastic band. Fontana imprintThis, I think is a book that I could have been seen carrying in public at any age.

I would also like to add that it’s a cover that more accurately conveys the content of the book.  I know it’s taken me a long time to get here, but this is my real question about this book, ‘Did the person who decided on the illustration actually read the book, the whole book?’

Here’s the opening:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.  The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.  She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate.  The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name.

Clearly, at this point, the main protagonist is a child.  I agree that if you ignore the academic references (can you?) it might be possible to assume the intended readers are children.  After all, there are plenty of younger reads that are meant to be enjoyed on another level by the adult who reads aloud.  I’m not convinced this is that kind of book.

The thing is, ‘The Once and Future King’ is composed of four, arguably five books, depending on which version you read. While the cover at the top of this page could apply to book 1, The Sword in The Stone, by book 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Arthur is a man.  There are still children at the centre of the story, there is still magic imbedded in the plot, but the story moves into adult territory.  While not graphic, there are seductions, rape, betrayals and battles.  This is, after all, based on the Arthur myths.

Now I’m not saying the book is unsuitable for children.  I haven’t attempted to define what age group childhood covers, let alone what material they should or should not read.

I’m thinking here about teenage, because that, at least, can be accurately summed up as thirteen to nineteen.  What concerns me with the issue in my top illustration, is that it limits this book.  I’m not sure how many older teenagers would be comfortable to be seen reading this copy, let alone adults.  Which is a shame, because T.H. White did not write these books for children, any more than Charlotte Bronte did with Jane Eyre, or Charles Dickens with Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby.

Here is the original cover for the collected novels, as it was published in 1958.  I ask you, which cover do you prefer?

Once_future_king_coverIncidentally, in the same shop, The Dark Materials trilogy and all of the Harry Potter novels were shelved amongst the ‘adult’ A – Z of authors.

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.