Guest Guide to Short Stories...
Ernest Hemingway once famously bragged that he won a bet by writing a complete story in just six words; ‘For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn'. True or not (and whoever the real author) it's a clipped and powerful short piece of prose that extraneous words might only have spoiled. Enter this week's guest writer Scott Morris, who's taken the time to explain why, where fiction is concerned, size isn't everything...
Scott Morris is Reviews Editor for The Cadaverine, an Arts Council funded literary blog publishing short stories, flash fiction, poetry, reviews and features, all written by under 30s. The Cadaverine's mission is to expose the world to the criminally talented yet criminally underrepresented young writers, both online and at various literary festivals and events across the country.
Scott also runs Oh Shillings, a blog promoting his own creative and critical writing, in which swans crash from the skies and the widows of great composers inhabit impossible buildings. His short stories have been published in The Literateur, Polluto, Trespass and Cake Magazine, and he was shortlisted for the 2010 London Fringe Short Fiction Award.
Words: Scott Morris
Short stories are much more than vacuum-packed novels. They are capable of things that are impossible in big books, with a smaller word count making words count for more. JG Ballard, a master of the form, who just missed the list, called them "the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside [novels]" Below are five writers from the last century that you would be foolish to lose down the side of the literary sofa. In their own way, each of these writers has taken the short story apart and pieced it back together as something exciting and unknown.
1. James Joyce
Best known for long, difficult, monolithic novels, Joyce was also one of the finest craftsmen of the short story form. At first glance, Dubliners is a simple assortment of urban vignettes: a couple attend a party, two schoolboys play truant, a local priest dies. Beneath the surface, however, there lies a subtly complex style and a radical variety of narrative techniques and voices, always balanced with genuine humour and captivating characters. Joyce called his stories "epiphanies", recording moments of sudden and heightened clarity in his characters' mundane lives. This is best seen in ‘The Dead', an admittedly long short story in which a wife's dramatic anecdote about a former lover leads to her husband realising, in a flash of self-awareness and insecurity, the unseen gulfs of knowledge that exist in their marriage. It also leads to one of the most finely written endings in modern literature.
Read 'The Dead'.
2. Franz Kafka
More amazing than the goings-on in Kafka's stories - clerks transformed into gigantic vermin, academic apes, torture machines and singing mice - is the complete lack of amazement with which they are narrated. While Kafka's three novels all remained unfinished at the time of his death, he left behind a number of short pieces that are dazzlingly polished. Some are no more than a few paragraphs - stories contracted into powerful philosophical parables and aphorisms. They are simultaneously grotesque, eerie and (something that is never emphasised enough) blackly comical. My personal favourite is ‘A Hunger Artist', in which a professional faster who once attracted the carnival crowds now wastes away in a forgotten corner of the fairground. Is this a comment on early consumer society, on the role of the writer, or perhaps cry of distress? Kafka's stories are so enthralling because they resist easy answers to such questions.
Read 'A Hunger Artist'.
3. Jorge Luis Borges
The first line of a Borges story is always deceptively dry, couched in the language of over-pedantic academia. His narrators are often historians and critics, listing book volumes and editions, chiding inattentive editors and translators. Don't be fooled, however: all this scholarly bumf is Borges' way of setting up mind-boggling puzzles and booby traps for his readers. Labyrinths is exactly that, a collection of dizzying mental mazes that are impossible to second guess. In ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', a detailed article on a newly discovered country is revealed to be a fake, written by a secret society to imagine and thereby create a new world; in ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', a book review charts a man's attempt to not only translate Don Quixote but to recreate it; ‘The Garden of Forking Paths' is arguably the first example of ‘hypertext'. Borges writes stories about the nature of stories, probing their possibilities.
4. Raymond Carver
It is difficult to go into detail about what makes a Raymond Carver story so great, because detail is certainly not his cup of tea. Together with his editor, Gordon Lish, Carver forged a distinctive and highly influential minimalistic prose style. His plots can typically be summarised in a sentence or two. Take ‘Fat', for example, the opener to his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976). A waitress serves a very fat man and tells her friend about the experience. That is it. Over a few pages, we are told in clipped, neutral terms what he orders, what they say to each other, how she then leaves with her boyfriend. Nothing happens and yet everything happens. Like Joyce, Carver sees short stories as contained epiphanies. After recalling the everyday encounter with the very fat man, the narrator announces: ‘It is August. My life is going to change. I feel it.'
Listen to 'Fat'.
5. Lydia Davis
While Carver's stories can be summed up in a sentence, Lydia Davis' stories are often only a sentence long. ‘Losing Memory', for example, is easily quoted in full:
You ask me about Edith Wharton.
Well, the name is very familiar.
After translating the long, winding sentences of Proust's Swann's Way, Davis was keen to explore the other extreme: short stories in for which ‘short' really was the operative word. Unlike Carver, Davis does not pare things down in order to get at ‘dirty realism'; her stories constantly reject character or scene-setting conventions. The result is a highly compressed form that can take seconds to read but forever to digest, little literary gallstones. This is short fiction for the Twitter generation. Despite her wit and experimentalism, Davis' short stories have made relatively small impact this side of the Atlantic but her Collected Stories are fortunately now available from Penguin.
Read more Lydia Davis stories.
Read Scott's stories, poems and critical musings at Oh Shillings.
Read a pick of the best poetry, prose and non-fiction by under 30s at The Cadaverine.
Sorry no reviews have been returned.
Opera & Dance