Form and Content label answers to two simple questions about stories.

The creation of samplers was very popular in the nineteenth century; the collecting of old samplers was popular in the twentieth. A sampler is a piece of mounted cloth upon which a needleworker has arranged examples of their technical skills. Different styles, in lettering, figures, illustrative designs and patterns showcase the range and competence of the needlecraft. Those skills though were also used to make the clothes and the soft furnishings of the everyday world. There is something baroque, perhaps, about the sampler, and about a society which veers towards practising the sampler in preference to the practical work. Of course, technology moves the manufacturing on. Clothes and soft furnishings become the products of factories, rather than manu-factories. The art is disconected from the craft.

You might posit a similar movement in short stories – you could do the same for poetry – from the generally useful, to the baroque. Critics and academics push in that direction sometimes. Among the titles in Professor Charles May’s ‘The New Short Story Theories’, you will find ‘A Cognitive Approach to Storyness’, a fascinating study, by Susan Lohafer, of pseudo-endings and statistics (word counts) in the short story. The sort of essay a writing geek, like me, is happy to delve into for an hour or two – but of limited, if any value or interest to that putative beast, the general reader.

There’s always a danger (and a pleasure) in writing short stories that are like those samplers – an example of everything we know how to do, but not usable, not a shirt. Such writing appeals to other practioners, not least because they are the ones who are likely to understand what you are trying to do, and how doing it. Is this what the general reader wants too? And do we care? Ought we to care? A throwaway line in an introduction to a short story collection remarked that short stories had become more popular after poems had become too difficult for the ordinary reader. I’ve touched on this before, because it raises that awkward question of who we are writing for, and who we should be writing for. If we are writers writing for each other alone, isn’t it a bit indulgent? Incestuous? Pretentious? Does it imply that we think non-writers are really not worth the trouble – unless we want to strip them of large amounts of money for something we’re good at and they aren’t?

A third way, to borrow a phrase, might be to write for ourselves, but be happy to share. If I like something, is it not reasonable to think that someone else might too? As a writer I have learned to read ‘as a writer’, but I learned first, as a reader, to read ‘as a reader’, and as a very ordinary reader. Though one might be said to read as a writer, one can’t, I suspect, write as a reader, but only as a writer who is aware of how a reader reads, or might read. How we might read, when not reading as writers, suggests to me that we might do so for some sort of ‘enjoyment’, or even ‘entertainment’. Poe talked of short stories as being ‘perused’, one given meaning of which is to scrutinise, which suggests study rather than pleasure – save that study is a pleasure when it is done for love (amateur) rather than for reward (professional), and so on round the definitions.

C.S.Lewis has something interesting to say about this in his essay, ‘On Stories’, in the collection of essays, ‘Other Worlds’ (Bles,1966 – but still in print I believe). He’s looking at the ‘re-reader’ – who reads, not to find out what happens, but to savour how it happens. This is a persuasive argument, suggesting that the pleasure is in the study. Lewis despairs of the once-only reader, whom he castigates as ‘unliterary’. The unliterary reader, he says, ‘is himself chiefly making what he enjoys’ by ‘flood(ing) wretched material with suggestion’. This thought must be disquieting for those of us who, in writing workshop and seminar, have been exorted to leave space for the reader, and work for him to do. Another quotation from the essay: ‘free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia.’ The ‘p’ word, for those of you who, like me, have no Greek, comes from Aristotle – is quoted by Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk in the film The Human Stain, and means, as is explained by Gary Sinise in the same film, the moment when the hero realises he has been wrong all along! Who says Hollywood dumbs down!

Lewis expresses an aspiration; to bring to the English story a quality that ‘can mediate imaginative life to the masses while not being contemptible to the few’. I admire his intent, but it seems a shame that we have, or perhaps that we believe that we have, the fews, and the masses.

Which brings me back to the beginning, and a guess, no more, at what those two questions, with form and content as their answers, might be:

What is the story about?

What is it like?

I would have liked to end there, but can’t resist one more observation: which is that Form and Content, from an exploratory perspective, seem to be in the right order of importance, whereas ‘about’ and ‘like’ seem to be equally so from an enjoyment perspective. The first of answers being to the second of questions, and vice versa. A change of perspective in fact.

On Another Tack: The novel ‘Canticle For Leibowitz’ is to be serialised on Radio Four. I read this while still at school, in the last century. I can’t remember much about it, except that there was a moment in the last straight that blew me (as they say) away! Read it before the media that is the message re-writes it!

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