OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI didn’t get off to a good start when reading Florence Goyet’s history of the ‘classic’ short story.

The use of the word ‘paroxystic’ irrritated me. Surely it should be ‘paroxysmic’? (cataclysm=cataclysmic). I wasn’t absolutely convinced by the argument either, that short stories are always paroxywhichever. What did convince, or rather intrigued me was the later assertion that short stories are about situation, rather than character. Novels, by contrast, the implication is, are about character rather than situations.

Both have both, but the focus is different.

Thinking it through, what would that tell us about short stories and how we respond to them? It occurs to me that we are more likely to ask ‘what would I do in that situation?’ than we would be to formulate the question ‘what would I do if I were like that?’

If the novel explores character, do we view it from a safer, more detached perspective, as an outsider? We assess the character being explored, but it remains somebody else.

The situation, by contrast, in a short story, confronts us with an exploration of what might happen to us, of what we might do in the same situation. The short story, if that is true, turns us back on ourselves. We are more intimately connected with it than with the novel’s story. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the characters, or their situations in a novel, but we care in a different way.

Situations reveal rather than explore character. Sequences of situations offer that exploration. Short stories are rarely sequences in that sense, though there may well be phases in the development of the single situation they explore. Characters, by their interpretations of events and their responses to them, create situations – for me the classic example of this is in the novel (but not the film adaptation) First Blood, which I have written about elsewhere. They also react to situations.

Like chicken and egg, like whether we set off walking with the left foot or the right, situation and character are inextricably linked: they create and reveal each other in story…

But that the short story might start off on the situation foot, rather than the character one is an idea well worth considering when we set out to write one.

A curious aside to all this is that recently I sent off a collection of short stories for possible publication. The publisher wanted a working title. Titles are always a challenge, and one worth meeting, so I put on the thinking cap – a rather charming embroidered jobbie with a tassel. You can see it in the story ‘A Fabulous Blade’ on Vimeo at BHDandMe – and went looking for something appropriate.

The stories, thirty five of them, are varied in tone, style and content. What, I asked myself, might bind them all together and pop them in a pot! I rather like to draw titles from within the stories, rather than use an existing story title with the added ‘and other stories’, but what story might have a line in it that could be quoted, or twisted, to say something about all the others as well as about itself?

The answer came from The Turkey Cock, also on Vimeo, where the little man makes a comment which includes the phrase ‘in a situation like this’. Here was the seed of my overarching working title: ‘In Situations Like This’ – which seems to me to be an unexpected and unconscious affirmation of FG’s assertion.

New glasses, by the way!

Advertisements