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.

Patterns

Our neighbours gardens are bursting with bright flowers, sometimes forming unlikely harmonies: the purple smoke bush fronted by bright yellow evening primroses, or delicate crimson sweet peas next to blowsy orange dahlias. These glorious pallets of colour are a credit to the time and care that have gone into them.

In contrast, we’re still favouring the wild look. Thanks to a few strategic rainstorms between heatwaves, green is still our predominant colour. We are a garden of textures and tones, with only a few dots of colour from the hardiest types of independent blooms. The yellow-hot pokers have been stars, and so are those rampant volunteers, the orange marigolds.

Luckily, the results of this abandonment are not so obvious from a distance, so we’ve not had to deal with comments about harbouring an invasion force. This week though, my conscience was triggered when returning from a trip to collect our clicked groceries.

I didn’t notice them on the way out, because I was concentrating on reversing. We have a tricky gateway.

Driving in, I couldn’t avoid noticing the very tall and vigorous hog weed plant leaning, triffid-like, over the bonnet of the car, heavy with ripening seeds.

Tall as it is, luckily it’s not Giant Hogweed, which is a notifiable weed. Still, I was certain my neighbours wouldn’t be pleased to see it. Something would have to be done.

I’ve a fascination with the patterns of seed-heads. So, once I’d seen one seeding plant, my eye was in for spotting the others.

What is it I like? The symmetry.

Anyone who knows me well would be able to explain how paradoxical that answer is. I am hopeless at mathematics. Show me a number and my brain stalls. At school I failed to understand anything beyond the basic, practical levels.

I can still name a few geometric shapes: isosceles triangle, equilateral triangle, the parallelogram… Could I describe them? Please don’t test me.

Perhaps, if they’d been presented as nature notes I might have made an Archemedian exclamation. Give me maths with a story attached, and things like measuring volume make sense. Eurika!

Stories are patterns. The ones I love best are a puzzle to be unraveled. They can be seen quickly, and enjoyed in passing. Some can be studied, over and over again. Look closely and each time they will reveal a fresh pattern of meaning, of symbols, words or images. Perhaps this is the same principle as someone colouring mandalas in one of those mindfulness books.

To look at a dandelion seed-head before I use it to count time, is to lose time. So imagine my fascination with the salsify seed heads, three times the size of a dandelion. They’ve been popping up in this garden for years. These are the grandfather clocks of nature’s timekeepers. The stems can be up to five foot tall.

Then there are teasels, another of my unconventional garden residents. These have their seeding shape before the flowers are showing. They’re pretty spectacular from a distance, but look down at them and another pattern shows.

Patterns like these lead me to think I might manage to understand the equations behind polyhedrons, or maybe, even, The Golden Ratio. First, though, I’d better find my loppers, and cut down that hogweed, before it scatters its way into the gardens of all my neighbours.

My reading: science, fiction and structure.

The trick with reading short stories, I think, is not to rush from one to another without taking a breather between. The best of them should be given time to soak into the thought-stream.

Of course, it’s not always possible to guess in advance whether a new story deserves to be given the kind of attention that implies. When I picked a 2007 anthology of Science Fiction off the dustier of my shelves I had no memory of where it had come from, and I don’t read enough of the genre to recognise even the name of the editor, let alone any of the twelve chosen authors.

My choosing it at that moment was motivated by tidiness. In the last few weeks I’ve built up a sizable heap of discards for the charity shop. Judging by the recent turn-around in my reading to acquiring ratio, there’s a possibility that I might have shelf-room for all of my books, soon. I can’t think when that last happened.

I know, this approach is far from the usual driving spirit for someone in search of entertainment. But, actually, in using this strategy, I’m drawing from a history of good luck, or maybe serendipity. Some of the best films, plays, radio shows and reading experiences I’ve enjoyed, have been due to happenstance, rather than research.

Now you might argue that since The Best of 2007… was on my shelf, I must, at some point, have thought it would be worth reading. Actually, a substantial number of my TBR books have been gifts. I swop a fair few volumes with friends, family and neighbours. Sometimes these are because we know each other’s reading habits and expect them to be entertained, other times because we’ve struggled through them, or even, given up, and would like a second opinion. And then there are the books that have been orphaned. My shelves are, it seems, viewed as a safe place: a book haven.

Please note that word ‘seems’. Despite the evidence of my wall spaces, I can be a ruthless reader. Maybe it’s easier to hand the final disposal of a book over to someone else.

To get back to, Science Fiction: The Best of The Year, 2007, I still don’t know why I had it, but I do have a few thoughts about why it languished on my shelves for several years.

  1. It’s a thickish book, with only twelve stories inside. I thought they’d be long, and was not sure I’d have the stamina for so much science.
  2. I don’t like the cover illustration.
    • It’s predominantly red: not one of my favourite colours.
      • There’s an illustration of a space vehicle, and an astronaut. I always expect ‘hard’ sci-fi when I see a plot that looks like it relies on technology.
        • ‘Hard’ sci-fi is something I’m happy to watch, but too lazy to read. It so often requires the learning of lots of new terms and theories. That might be acceptable in real life, but not for short-fiction.

If only I had opened it earlier. Point number 1, is qualified by the discovery that although there are 372 pages, they’re printed on thicker paper than I expected. The font is a good size, and the lines or print are well spaced.

Point number 2, well I hardly thought about the cover, once I had started the stories, and although there was ‘hard’ science in some, it was not delivered in dense blocks. Rounded characters led me into scenarios that explored themes on a human level. They raised universal questions about how we exist, or interact, and explored the strengths and weaknesses of our natures, without lecturing or grandstanding.

As always, with my reading, I’ve learned something more than I expected. Why should we take a breather, between reading short stories? Because it supplies a space for our minds to pick up all the nuances of a well delivered finish.

Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

I’d like to recommend V.S. Pritchett

book cover pritchettVictor Sawden Pritchett (or VSP, as he preferred to be known) was a prolific British writer,born in 1900, he died in 1997.  For fifty years of the twentieth century he produced stories, and he was popular.

Yes but, you might say, he’s writing about life an awfully long while ago. Why bother? There are lots of modern stories to choose from.

Well, it’s useful to see how things have changed, or not changed, in lived lives, and the way words are used.  VSP once said:

“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.  I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

Of all the advice given out by writers, one of the few things they agree on is that writers should read.  Many list VSP amongst their favourite authors.  To find out why, you could look at critical discussions explaining what he did, and even how, but before you do that, track down one of his stories and see if the magic touches you.

You might start with, ‘The Voice’. It’s set during the London blitz, and begins:

A message came from the rescue party, who straightened up and leant on their spades in the rubble. The policeman said to the crowd: ‘Everyone keep quiet for five minutes. No talking, please.  They’re trying to hear where he is.’

The silent crowd raised their faces and looked across the ropes to the church which, now it was destroyed, broke the line of the street like a decayed tooth.

Soon singing is heard, from below the rubble.

‘That’s Mr Morgan all right,’ the warden said. ‘He could sing.  He got silver medals for it.’

The Reverend Frank Lewis frowned.

‘Gold, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Mr Lewis dryly.  Now he knew Morgan was alive, he said: ‘What the devil’s he doing in there? How did he get in? I locked up at eight o’clock last night myself.’

Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eyelashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man.  He had been up all night on rescue work in the raid and he was tired out.  The last straw was to find the church had gone and that Morgan, the so-called Reverend Morgan, was buried under it.

It’s not the last straw though, this is only the beginning.  Eudora Welty said:

‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’

It’s as good a definition as any I’ve seen.

The scandal of it, Lewis was thinking.  Must he sing so loud, must he advertise himself?  I locked up myself last night.  How the devil did he get in? And he really meant: How did the devil get in?

More to the point, will he get out, and what will happen along the way?

Only connect.

Harriet phoned.  ‘I’m afraid we’re losing one of the group.  She said she’d read three of the stories, and they were just too depressing.  Are there any cheery ones in the anthology?’

K. by Lajos Csaki‘Well,’ said Vickie.  ‘It depends what you mean by cheery. There are several comedies.’

‘She says she doesn’t like P.G.Woodhouse.’

‘Okay,’ said Vickie.  ‘Has she tried…hmm, what sort of thing do you think she’s looking for?’

‘I don’t really… something up-beat, I suppose. I had a quick look through myself, but, well, I see what she means, in a way.  They’re not what I expected.  Are there any happy endings?’

‘Ah, I see what you mean now.  One or two, certainly.  Maybe more, depending on your point-of-view.  They’re not exactly about the endings, though… Hello, Harriet?  Are you there?’

telephone girl‘Yes, yes, still here.  Surely the ending’s important?’

‘Oh yes.  It’s important, very important.  But so is the beginning, and the middle… and mostly, the bit that comes after you’ve read it and thought about it for a while.  That might be the most important part of all.’

‘Really?’

‘Definitely.  After that happens you might decide to go back and read it again.’

‘Might I?’

‘I hope so.’

‘But will I like it?’

‘Good question.’

 

*Top photograph: K. by Lajos Csáki

The Siren & Other Strange Tales: Six Supernatural Stories by Sheila Williams.

the siren 2Are you looking for something new to read?  Here’s an interesting selection of approaches to the supernatural that is well worth a look at, easily downloaded from Amazon.

There are a variety of geographical and historical settings.  My favourite is the title story, The Siren, a North-East coast of England story, vividly told.  I swear I felt the draft of that wind, despite sitting in warm sunshine on the other side of the country.

Sometimes, it’s good to dance with things that defeat rational explanation, and how better to do that than in fiction?  That’s just what Sheila Williams has done.  How do I know?  Because I’ve read her blog.  Click ‘This‘ and you can too.

We don’t often get the chance to see where a writer’s inspiration came from.  This glimpse provides a few clues about how you can use what you know to write what you don’t know.  I like that.

the siren

Discovered: Pietro Grossi, writer.

fist-by-pietro-grossiI begin with a big THANK YOU to Fiona, who passed Fists on to me.  Fists being a book of three stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi.  Not, I hasten to add, in the original language, but in a translation by Howard Curtis.

Having just finished the final story, I feel I’ve been to Italy.  Not skimming across the surfaces that tourism offers, you understand, I’ve experienced the world as lived by three Italian men, and it wasn’t what I expected.

Yes it was macho, there was boxing, there were horses and blood-letting, but there was also variety and insights.  I found passages I wished I had written.  Look at this, ‘He was like a Greek statue in motion, with the same rigid still perfection.’

I wasn’t sure which centuries all three stories were describing.  Horses might have been in the last one, or maybe the one before that.  It didn’t matter, I was in that valley accepting that the most technological innovation mentioned was a shotgun.

In these versions of Italy the women were mostly shadowy, even when exerting power.  Seen from a male perspective, maternal influences are questionable, maybe a challenge.  Yet, in the absence of a mother, what happens to two small boys and their father?  What kind of men will the boys turn into?

Reading Boxing, reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.  Despite the fact that I know only as much about either football or boxing as any media savvy person absorbs by accident, I read every jargon-laden word of both texts.  Why?  I think it was the enthusiasm of the narrators, who not only hooked me, they swept me along with them.  I’m still not a fan of either sport, but I’d be happy to read both again. Besides, don’t make the mistake of imagining either story is entirely about sport, both are character driven.

Here are the opening lines of Grossi’s short story:

Let’s get this straight: I really liked the whole boxing thing.

I don’t know what it was, whether it was the sense of security or the awareness that I was doing something the way it should be done.  Maybe both, maybe also the terrific feeling that there was a place where I had what it takes, where I could fight on equal terms.

It quickly becomes apparent that our narrator is a nerdy adolescent boy.

One day, I told my mother I hated the piano.  Music was fundamental, she said, it gave you discipline.  Discipline.  Why discipline?  I was the most disciplined child in the world.  I was so disciplined, I’d almost vanished from the face of the earth.

Before you start guessing about the significance of this domineering mother, read this segment:

Six months later, I was dancing in that ring like a ballerina and scattering straight lefts like summer hailstones.  It was undeniable: even though no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body, it was as if I was born to be up there.  And since I’d started training, my piano playing had improved, too, and I was even starting to like that bastard Beethoven.

fists-by-pietro-grossiAt this point there are forty-one pages of story still to be told.  They’re full of incident, detail, character development and introspection.   I forgot I was reading until I turned the last page and found myself musing over the last line.  I put the book down, feeling a little lost, now that I had to leave ‘the dancer’ behind.  I needn’t have worried, as you can probably tell, I think he’s staying with me for a while yet.

Before I pass this book on to it’s next reader, I may revisit those three stories.  Meanwhile, I’ve added Pietro Grossi to my list of authors to look out for.  If you haven’t come across him before, maybe he’s someone for you to look out for too.

 

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.