Here is a (slightly) corrected text of the series of essays At A Sitting- Readings For Writers, which I have been posting for the past few months. A final ‘provisional conclusions’ has been added to the end along with a bibliography.
At A Sitting – Some Thoughts on Beginnings & Endings in Prose Fiction
A useful definition of the short story is one that says it is ‘a piece of prose fiction that can be read at a sitting’; nothing to do with style, form, or content, and all the flexibility that reading speeds and the elasticity of unspecified time can bring. There is however one definite in this, whether we are talking about a 17,000 word sitting, or an 800 word one. It is that the story will be read in one go. It is not going to be put down, and picked up again for a second sitting. That is the presumption you can make, if you are writing short stories, of whatever length. If you make the opposite presumption, you must think of yourself as writing a novel, or a novella.
A couple of years ago I read Vassily Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate. With something like two hundred named characters, split into several groups, and scattered through locations from the Russian Steppes to the forests of Poland, I could manage only a few pages at a sitting, and when you look at the construction of the book, at the length of its many chapters, you see that such a fragmented reading has been catered for, intended even. If we take my initial definition as the one that separates them from the short story, novels, and novellas have to be written on the assumption that they will not be read at a sitting. They have to be constructed like highways, upon which plenty of comfort stops are provided. If you can go a little longer, read on to the next one.
Short stories don’t work like that. We need a different analogy, a more apt metaphor. Short stories, you pop into your mouth in one go. They are not a meal. They are a bite-sized snack, and sometimes I have consumed a collection of them, like a box of irresistible chocolates, in one greedy, indulgent evening. Short stories do not need to be constructed of many endings and beginnings. Indeed, it may be that they need to be not constructed in that way. This quality makes several demands upon the writer, which may again, be explored by looking at the metaphors we might think of as being appropriate.
A short story might be seen as a leap, rather than as a route. That does not mean it is without constituent parts. There might be a run-up, a jump, a flight through the air, itself split into a rising, and a falling, and the end must be a landing of sorts: a solid, two footed thump, a paratrooper’s roll, a stumble, a frantic finger-tip grab.
Short story lengths are notoriously varied. Look at the current competitions on offer. There are some common benchmarks, almost like auctioneers’ bid steps, beginning with the flash fictions: 50 words, 100 words, 250 words, 500 words, and then the more traditional, 1000 words, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000, 8,000, and 15,000 words. How far do we go before a story needs to be constructed with the expectation that it will be put down, and picked up again, before it ends?
The longer the short story the less my leap analogy seems to fit. Perhaps, going hand over hand along a rope, across a chasm, would better suit? Each hand move seen as a stage in the movement, but not as a cessation of it.
The point I am edging towards, is that the junctions between the constituent parts of shorts stories may be based on a fundamentally different concept to that underlying those between the parts of a novel. In the former case they will be in the nature of links. In the latter they will be in the nature of breaks. The metaphors for them too should emphasise the difference. The short story may require waymarkers, where the novel will require service stations. In the one you might scramble across a log bridge. In the other you would wait, overnight, for the morning ferry. A short story runs out like an anchor chain. A novel cruises from port to port.
The implications are clear. In a short story you are not so much providing the reader with comfort stops, but with stepping-stones. You are facilitating the journey, not providing breaks from it. The short story writer wants to keep his readers moving. The novelist wants to give them opportunities to stop, and thus needs to pair those with incentives to get them going again. For the short story writer, getting going again means going on to read another story.
In both cases endings and beginnings, most of them internal in the case of the novel, are critical. In the short story, there being only one of each, they become paramount. In the novel it may be the travelling through those internal endings and beginnings, rather than the arriving, that is the point of the exercise, but in the case of the short story, it is the arriving that dominates. We appreciate a short story by arriving at its ending, and there are many models for what sort of experience that might be. We experience the two forms differently, because of the difference in the way they are constructed, and that is because of the assumption encapsulated in the putative definition, that a short story is ‘a piece of prose fiction that can be read at a sitting.’
Readings for Writers: A series of short studies of short stories, for those who might wish to write some.
This series of short essays was designed to examine the nature of short stories. Specifically I have been interested in how they end, and in what functions those endings may be said to perform, by which I mean, how do they act upon us, the readers. Following from that, I wanted to look at how those end-functions demanded the support of the beginnings of the stories, and of the content in between.
I hope I have shown that each of these stories has quite a different function for its ending, and makes quite different demands upon what has gone before, and gives a different pay-off to the reader.
1 Holding Up A Mirror: A Canary for One by Ernest Hemingway
2 Through The Hoop: The Coup de Grace by Ambrose Bierce
3 Affirmations: Rothschild’s Fiddle by Anton Chekhov
4 Back to the Beginning: The Man Who Could Work Miracles by H.G.Wells
5 A Cumberland Sausage: A Telephone Call by Dorothy Parker
6 Review & Sleight of Hand: The Ultimate Dare by Andrew Wooding
8 Links, Separators & Packages: Making Snowmen by Yuri Nagibin
9 Obscurity & Uncertainty: Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl, by Robert Coover
10 What The Others Say: H.E.Bates, Frank O’Connor & others
11 Flash Fictions
12 Contemporary Writers – A Glance at the Last Decade
13 Provisional Conclusions Readings for Writers
Readings for Writers 1: Holding Up A Mirror, A Canary for One by Ernest Hemingway. (Complete short stories, Fina Vigia Ed, Scribner.2003, pp258-261)
Not much seems to happen in this story, at least not until we reach the very last line.
The story takes place on a train journey through France. It begins with the train passing a house, in the garden of which tables are set in the shade of palm trees. It ends with the baggage being unloaded and the passengers leaving at the Gare du Lyons in Paris, almost. There is that last line still to come.
There are three main characters in the story, one of whom, the American lady, has the canary. The American lady is the one that the narrator focuses on, although he mentions his wife too, although only to report conversations she has been having with the American lady. The narrator is the third main character, although we are quite half way into the story before that is revealed; and it is done so in one of those subtle moves that gets me excited about short stories.
‘For several minutes I had not listened to the American lady, who was talking to my wife.’
This is the first time that the wife is mentioned too, and up to this point we might have wondered who the American lady had been talking to, or more correctly, who had been listening to her. Up to this point we have probably assumed that this is a third person narrative; one which has showed us several scenes from the train, and has allowed to us to overhear several statements from the American lady.
Going back to the beginning, ‘The train passed very quickly along a red stone house with a garden…’ it is not clear whether we are looking at it, or from it. The description continues, still only hinting at the journey, ‘Then there was a cutting through red stone and clay, and sea was only occasionally and far below against rocks.’ In fact, it is beyond the next short paragraph, after the American lady has commenced her discourse about the canary and why she bought it, that Hemingway commits us to being on the train. ‘It was very hot in the train..’
This first half of the story, before the revelation of the first person narrator gives us a deal of description, of the journey, of the train, of the terrain through which it passes, including a burning farmhouse, and of the American lady and her canary. It is perhaps, up to this point, one of those stories that gives you lots of well written sentences, about which you find it hard to give a damn.
The shock of the narrator’s appearance though, heralds a change. Conversations now follow, and they hinge around the fact that the American lady believes that ‘Americans make the best husbands.’ We learn that she has prevented her daughter from marrying a Swiss. The narrator does not contribute to these conversations, which are between the American lady and his wife. In fact he has spoken only once, at that halfway mark, and he speaks only once more close to the end, as they pass damaged railway carriages on the outskirts of Paris: ‘Look,’ I said. ‘There’s been a wreck.’
This is a story in which very little seems to happen, and what we are shown seems to have very little interest for us. An American lady, fearful of travelling, who has bought ‘her own clothes for twenty years now from the same maison de couture’, is taking a canary back for her daughter, whose love life she has thwarted. Then we reach that last sentence, set in its own new paragraph.
‘We were returning to Paris to set up separate residencies.’
This bombshell revelation has not been hinted at before, yet we do not feel cheated, because nothing that has gone before is inconsistent with it. What it demands of us is that we re-visit the story in light of its implications. It enables an entirely new reading, in which, what we see, the quickly passed house and garden, the sea passing into the distance, what we hear, the American lady’s story, are all re-valued in light of what is now our knowledge of the narrator’s situation. Even the structure of the story, him being hidden, a detached observer, until the moment the American lady begins talking about American husbands, is cast into a new light. The whole story is packed with images, the burning farm, the solitary caged canary, the wrecked railway carriages that spark the narrator’s second speech, that act as metaphors for, or echoes of the narrator’s situation.
This is a particularly neat example of the twist in the tail: the revelation that takes us by surprise, yet which, in hindsight, is entirely consistent with what has gone before, but which, more than that enables us to, demands in fact that we re-read the story as an entirely different piece.
Readings For Writers 2: Through The Hoop, The Coup de Grace, by Ambrose Bierce (Americanliterature.com)
Ambrose Bierce, in The Coup de Grace, offers us an ending that is just as satisfying as Hemingway’s in A Canary for One, but it is constructed along entirely different lines.
Short stories like these are built on the experience of getting to the end. That’s where we get the gasp of recognition. That is where we come to see that what has been shown is not what it was thought to be. Such stories are ones in which the content, moulded by the form, has been shown in particular order, in which vital, significant information has been withheld until a particular moment. Such stories work by juxtaposition, and by revelation. They give us the shock of being brought to a halt, unexpectedly, of stepping into space.
Bierce’s life was much bound up war, which he wrote about repeatedly, and it ended mysteriously after he set off for the Mexican revolution, saying that to be a ‘gringo’ there, was tantamount to suicide. He was never heard of again . Many of his short stories, including the one cited here, are set in the American Civil War, in which he served. The Coup de Grace takes us to a battlefield on which the fighting is over, but the ‘tidying up’ is not. The dead and the dying are still lying untended as night comes on. Bierce’s protagonist, Captain Downing Madwell, searches the field. As in Hemingway’s story we are late coming to recognise him. Here it is the name that is withheld, until a third of the way in. At this point we are introduced to a triangle of related characters: Madwell himself, and two brothers, one of whom, Caffal Halcrow, a sergeant, is his friend, while the other, Major Creede Halcrow, his superior officer, is a mortal enemy.
It is the sergeant for whom Madwell searches, and he finds him, wounded and mutilated by scavenging animals. Having used his last cartridge to despatch a wounded horse, Madwell kills his friend with his sword. At this point two stretcher bearers arrive, and with them Madwell’s enemy, and the dead man’s brother. It is another story in which the punch is in the last sentence, in fact in the last two words: the name of the Major.
Unlike A Canary for One Bierce’s last line does not throw what has gone before into new light, but rather throws light ahead of it, onto what must surely happen next. Hemingway’s and Bierce’s stories show two distinct types of the ‘twist in the tail’. In fact, I shall move on from that metaphor, to two separate ones. Whereas in both cases it is the last line that carries weight of the story, in which the ending is the most significant part, we have one, Hemingway’s, in which that ending throws us back into the story already told, and the other, Bierce’s, that projects us forward into a future we must imagine. One holds up a mirror into which we look, the other a hoop through which we jump.
This difference has immense implications for what the writers, respectively, need to have done before they get us to those endings. In Bierce’s case he must establish beyond any doubt the emotional ties, positive and negative, that bind his three characters into that triangle. It is what we know that gives the last line its potency. In Hemingway’s story the opposite is true. It is what we don’t know that makes his last line so potent, and Hemingway’s final revelation sends us back to the story he has told us with a changed perspective on it. Bierce, because of what he has brought us to understand of his characters and the circumstances they are operating in, uses his ending to project us into an imagined future. That we can make that leap is because what has gone before has given us a strong sense of how the two men, Creede Halcrow and Downing Madwell will use the situation in which they find themselves at the end of the story. It is not only Major Halcrow’s enmity that will seize this opportunity, but Captain Madwell’s that will prevent him from being able to defend himself.
There is a music hall joke about a yokel, who, when asked for directions, says, if I was trying to get to there, I wouldn’t start from here. Luckily, as writers, we get the chance to start from wherever we wish, and in cases like the ones examined, we would be advised to know where we were heading, before we set out.
Readings for Writers 3 Affirmations, Rothschild’s Fiddle by Anton Chekhov (Americanliterature.com).
Not all short stories end with a twist in the tail. Chekhov’s tale of the peasant Yakov’s journey towards rehabilitation is such a one. As has been the case with the stories I looked at previously, this presents three major characters, and it is worth pausing here to reflect on how useful the character triangle is. It allows each one to view and to comment on the relationship between the other two. It allows three different relationships to be held up to comparison. It allows both positive and negative tensions, as in the Bierce story, to be expressed.
In the case of Rothschild’s Fiddle two only of the possible relationships are put under scrutiny, and both, at least to begin with, are negative tensions. The primary one is that between Rothschild and Yakov. Despite the title, it is Yakov who is the central character. His attitude to Rothschild is abusive, aggressive and contemptuous. Circumstances bring them together, not affection. Yakov’s other relationship, that with his wife, is equally negative. During the course of the story she falls ill and dies, and he reflects upon their lives together, and in particular upon the death of their only child.
There is a curious word used in this story: ‘Vachhh.’ It is the word evoked in Rothschild by the music of Yakov’s fiddle. It is a powerful and expressive word, and in a translation, as the English version of the story is, is the only one unchanged from the original. It is the word that signifies Rothschild’s understanding of the weight of the world that is carried and expressed by Yakov’s playing. It signifies that Yakov has communicated his experience of life to Rothschild. The evocation of this word, which comes relatively late in the story may be viewed as having a similar function to the twists in the tail of the stories discussed previously. It is the climatic moment of the story, yet it is nowhere near the end.
Rothschild says it only twice, towards the end of the circa three thousand word story; once upon hearing the fiddle played, and again on playing it himself. In this story, where the burden of understanding, along with the fiddle, is passed from Yakov to Rothschild, and from Rothschild to us, it is the symbol and expression of taking the strain. It is loaded with all the emotional weight that Yakov has accumulated during the story. He has lost his wife, and has re-evaluated his life. He has re-imagined what it might have been, and has re-visited what it once was. He has remembered the loss of his baby girl, in contrast to the monetary losses that he meticulously records in his account books. He has reconciled himself to death, and to Rothschild, whom he addresses as ‘brother’.
It is after this recognition that Yakov plays his violin for the last time:
‘And he began playing again, and the tears gushed from his eyes on to the fiddle. Rothschild listened attentively, standing sideways to him and folding his arms on his chest. The scared and perplexed expression on his face, little by little, changed to a look of woe and suffering; he rolled his eyes as though he were experiencing an agonizing ecstasy, and articulated, “Vachhh!” and tears slowly ran down his cheeks and trickled on his greenish coat.’
At the end of the next paragraph, the penultimate one, the dying Yakov says ‘give the fiddle to Rothschild.’ The final paragraph sees Rothschild with the fiddle, in the wider world, empowered by it, yet also a vehicle for its message:
‘…but when he tries to repeat what Yakov played, sitting in the doorway, the effect is something so sad and sorrowful that his audience weep, and he himself rolls his eyes and articulates “Vachhh!…”’
Again we see that it is the placing of the last line, the last thought or statement, the last word in fact, that gives the story its power. Yet unlike with the Hemingway and the Bierce this is not a twist in the tail. It is neither a mirror nor a lens, nor does it project us backwards into the story, nor forwards from it. Rather it is a culmination, an affirmation of the changed understanding, in Yakov, in Rothschild, and in us. We are reminded also, that it is the fiddle that is named in the title, and that it is named as Rothschild’s. This means that the title is about the state of things at the end of the story, and once again we see ending and beginning inextricably linked. The story itself is about how it got to be Rothschild’s, and what the significance of that is, for Yakov, for Rothschild, and for us.
Readings for Writers 4 Back to the Beginning, The Man Who Could Work Miracles by H.G.Wells (Americanliterature.com)
H.G.Wells turned this short story, of a man who receives miraculous powers, into the screenplay for a film made during the nineteen thirties and starring the actor Roland Young.
The story concerns the young, argumentative George Fotheringay who discovers, without warning, that he has astonishing powers. As he explores the potential of these powers, encouraged by the chapel preacher, Maydig, he veers from the banal into the dangerous. Finally he causes the earth to stop its rotation, and in the ensuing holocaust, recognises that his only sensible course of action is to put things back the way they were before his very first miracle, and to refuse the powers themselves.
In retelling this story for the movies Wells added a great deal. He gave Fotheringay a job in a haberdashery, and through that embarked on an exploration of how the business world might wish to exploit the powers. He gave him a love interest, and was neatly able to make the point that such arcane talents have no control over the human heart, for though he can dress his girl however he wishes, he cannot sway her affection. These extra scenes slot in easily after several that are common to both tellings, and by doing so reveal something about this type of story.
The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a story that sets up a ‘what if’ situation and examines its implications. What would someone do with these powers, if granted them? In the film, Wells cast these examinations a little wider, and, despite the Hollywood reputation for dumbing down, a little deeper. The cast is greater, the incidents are more varied, and the motives of the characters are explored more widely, and more deeply.
The beginning and ending though, are substantially the same. Fotheringay begins by demonstrating his powers in the pub, and ends by rescinding them in the chaos of the end of the world. Arguably what passes between could be cut and pasted, pick and mixed, added to or subtracted from, almost endlessly. The story is a series of incidents caught in a net. The beginning opens it for inspection. The end closes it, and returns us to our own normality.
This is quite a contrast with the stories we have looked at previously. The end does not make us review the beginning or the middle. If anything it follows on from them. Neither does it project us in to a future. In fact it specifically does not so. In this aspect it is reminiscent of the ‘Romantic Comedy’ as typified by stories like The Tempest, where characters are precipitated into a situation, their behaviours are studied, and then they are returned to their own lives.
Beginnings and endings are still connected, but they open and shut the story, rather than adding a potency to it. Curiously, Wells did add elements to both the beginning and ending of this tale in the movie version. He explained the source of the powers, and made them part of a wager between the Gods. This makes explicit their nature: the opening and closing of an experiment. One of the difficulties in the story is to know who is telling it, and how they got to know about it, and authorial omniscience seems somehow unconvincing in this instance. Wells draws attention to the narrator only twice. Once is at the beginning. ‘It is doubtful whether the gift was innate. For my part I think it came to him suddenly.’ Later, around two thirds of the way in he does it again, by pointing out that ‘the reader ‘was’ killed in a violent unprecedented manner in 1896,’ and he promises to make clear how this might be, and reminds us that we are ‘but little beyond the hither side of the middle’ of the story.
Another detail worth noting is that Wells subtitled the story ‘A Pantoum in Prose.’ The Pantoum is a complex poetic form of Malayan origin, involving the repetition of lines in a sort of chain, through the poem, down to the last quatrain, in which two lines from the very beginning, as yet unrepeated finally get their repetition, so closing the poem and completing the circle. Again, we are offered a neat metaphor for this type of story: one that creates a complete circle.
We have now looked at four distinct types of short story endings, each of which has governed the functions of the content that precedes it. We have bounced off mirrors, leapt through hoops, passed on affirmations of our human sensibilities, and now completed a circle. All these four, though different share a common feeling though, that we have somehow reached a conclusion. They are all, in their ways, completions of sorts. Are there more linear forms? Ones that do not give a sense of completion? Ones that leave us neither looking back, nor seeing what is ahead, that challenge, rather than affirm our sensibilities, that leave us at a ragged end?
Readings for Writers 5 A Cumberland Sausage, A Telephone Call by Dorothy Parker. (Travelman Short Story Editions/Comedy no 3.)
Before we get to taste it, the most obvious difference between a Cumberland sausage and any other is that it is not constructed of links. It is made in one piece and measured by the yard. You cut off as much as you want, and make that cut wherever you want to.
If we take this for our metaphor of a short story, then we are implying that there is no special relationship between the beginning and the end, that neither beginning nor end indeed, has any particular location. Of course many stories may give the impression at their beginning that this is the case, but in the ones that we have looked at previously the endings have most definitely located both themselves, and the beginnings, when we finally reach them. Are there endings that do not do this?
Dorothy Parker’s short story, A Telephone Call, begins in the middle of an ongoing situation, and ends in the middle of the same situation. Both the reader and the single protagonist have remained in the same place, as the unnamed girl waits, and prays, for a phone call from her absent lover. ‘PLEASE, God, let him telephone me now’ it begins, and it ends with her counting, ‘five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty five, thirty, thirty five….’
In fact it is the counting that milestones the journey in this story, for she decides to count to five hundred ‘by fives’ early in the second paragraph, starts counting again roughly at the half way mark, and of course ends in the same way. These three markers emphasise only the passage of time, and between them we learn, obliquely, some of the background to what we come to realise is an asymmetrical relationship.
There are similarities here with the structure of Wells’ story, in that the content could, arguably, be extended or contracted, exploring more, or fewer, of the aspects of that relationship, without fundamentally changing the nature of the story. As she waits for his call Parker’s heroine re-visits the conversations she has had with her lover and sifts them for meanings. She rehearses what she might say if she were to call him. She talks herself into resisting her inclination to call, and re-assures herself, almost, that he, at any moment, will. The content, and point of the story, is that we sense, and experience her feelings. We see her situation as she presents it to herself, and probably, we convince ourselves that we understand her predicament much better than she does herself. She lays out for us the problems of such unbalanced relationships, the uncertainties, the self-loathing and anger, the hopes and the fears, and of course we are at liberty to match them to our own experiences as much as we are to hers.
Here is our linear story, with an ending that does not bounce us, return us, affirm us, or project us. It merely leaves us to reflect upon the situation that has been presented.
Yet, and I begin to wonder if this is part of the stamp of the short story as a genre, the ending is important, and it is related to the beginning, for they are both the same place, and it is the fact that in moving between them the protagonist has gone nowhere that is the point of the story. She remains in the same place, counting her desperate five hundred ‘in fives,’ but we do not. If journeys are what story is about, it must be remembered that they may be taken not by the characters alone, and this is a case where the journey is not taken by the character at all. Yet, the beginning, and the ending, are still crucial, and still connected to each other, the ending still making demands upon the beginning, and upon the content that lies between.
In all the cases I have looked at there have been quite specific functions of the closing words of the short story, functions that influence, govern even, how the beginning must be handled, and what the content between must do. We can point to five quite clearly differentiated ways in which the stories may be said to work. The first makes us review what we have previously read. The second precipitates us into an imagined future, again based on what has gone before. The third ends with an affirmation of what we have come to understand of what we may as well call the ‘human condition’, and the fourth shows us an experiment on completion of which we return to normality. The fifth exposes a failure to move on. These five readings have been selected to illustrate these particular points. But what if we were to select another story at random? Would that lead us to an example of one of those already shown? Or would we find yet another pattern?
Readings for Writers 6: Sleight of Hand, The Ultimate Dare by Andrew Graeme Wooding, Pinhole Camera 4.
Many years ago I read a story that ended with the hero being attacked by assassins. He fought back, firing on them as they spilled from their car. One by one they fell, and after a protracted gun battle, the last fell silent. As the hero walked away, the assassin whose job had been to feign dead at the beginning, sat up and shot him dead.
The author here had not cheated us, but had given us a piece of information that, like his hero, we had misinterpreted. This sleight of hand, in which a vital piece of information is provided early on, pushed into the background during the rest of the story, and put to use at the end, supplies an ending that has the shock values of Hemingway’s mirror, and Bierce’s hoop, but is different from each. We suddenly review what has gone before, but not as we do in A Canary for One. We search for, or realise the significance of, that first, casually passed over snippet. We are projected into the future too, knowing what will be the outcome. This type of story ending, in a sense, straddles the other two.
The beginning sets the trap, the middle distracts us, and the ending springs it. Andrew Wooding, then a first year Creative writing student at Cumbria University, wrote a story using a similar technique, which was published in Pinhole Camera 4. In it, two characters discuss over coffee the implications of knowing in advance what your last words will be. Early in the conversation one suggests what those words might be for the other, and of course, at the end they are spoken by him.
Wooding’s ending is sharp and amusing, yet clearly open to several interpretations. Because, in this case as in the others previously studied in this series, it is the actual last words of the story that carry the blow, we do not get to see what happens next. Does he die? And if so, how? And if not, does that mean the theory is discredited? Or that he has some repetitions ‘in hand’ before the prophecy comes true? And of course it is absolutely true that those last words would be inconsequential without that initial loading. Once again, the ending governs the beginning, and the middle diverts our attention from it.
In the half dozen stories I have looked at up to now, all of which have identifiable, and distinctly different types of ending, several common factors have emerged. They are that it is the very last words that, to borrow a phrase, have the last word!
The short story form seems to demand this, whereas novels often allow, or even demand, of the writer that he tie up loose ends, by adding on, after the most important story strand has been secured and dealt with, some paragraphs of information about the longer term outcomes of subplots and the fate of minor characters. You will find this in Dickens, and in the novella The Shooting Party, by Isobel Colegate, which I am often quoting. The short story seems to me to be a form in which the ‘story’ is much more tightly, and definitively bound within its beginning and its ending. Could this be because, unlike longer pieces, it has only one of each, and because specifically it has only one ending.
The review of the stories I have looked at in these initial half-dozen pieces has led me to believe that it is the ending, absolutely, that is the most important part of the short story, the part to which all other parts are subservient, and of which, they are all in effect, a part. I want to go on and draw two more conclusions. The first is that we should not let the fact that the beginning of a story is where the reader engages with us blind us to the role of that beginning in preparing for the ending. The second is that when we have those initial flashes of ideas for short stories, we should careful to note whether it is the beginning, or the ending, that we have stumbled upon.
Readings for Writers: No.7 –Beginnings:
Up to now this series has concentrated on endings, with only passing reference to how stories start, but beginings are vitally important. The classic example of this must be the story of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which, it is said, never got out of publishers’ slush piles until someone took it home and read past the first thirty or so pages, which were discarded for publication.
David Lodge points out that beginnings are the only bits of a book that we read without having been prejudiced by the rest of the book, and the logic of that is inescapable, and worth examining a little bit more. The title of course comes before everything, and so do any blurbs, hype, and opinion we have heard about the book. Apart from that though we encounter a book one word at a time, each subsequent word amending, deepening, refining, and challenging the meanings of those we have already read. Meaning accumulates as we progress.
I have a writer friend who denies the existence of beginnings and middles and endings, where writing is concerned, but BMEs are not merely a useful concept-tool for understanding what we are doing, but they are a fact of the way people must read. They have to start somewhere, and in a bound printed book, and in a heard story, there is an undoubted beginning, middle and end. Often you can detect the end of a beginning, the beginning of an end. In novels there are sometimes multiple beginnings, and multiple endings, and I’m not referring here to the stopping and starting points with which pieces too long to read at a sitting are provided. Look at the beginnings of No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy, Picador 2006) :
‘ I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn’t have to go but I did. I sure didn’t want to. He’d killed a fourteen year old girl and I can tell you right now I never did have no great desire to visit with him let alone go to his execution but I done it. The papers said it was a crime of passion and he told me there wasn’t no passion to it. He’d been dating this girl, young as she was. He was nineteen. And he told me he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. ‘(McCarthy, 2006.p1)
‘The deputy left Chigurh standing in the corner of the office with his hands cuffed behind him while he sat in the swivelchair and took off his hat and put his feet up and called Lamar on the mobile. Just walked in the door. Sherrif he had some sort of thing on him like one of them oxygen tanks for emphysema or whatever. Then he had a hose that run down the inside of his sleeve and went to one of them stunguns like they use at the slaughterhouse. Yessir. Well that’s what it looks like. You can see it when you get in. yessir. I got it covered. Yessir. When he stood up out of the chair he swung the keys off his belt and opened the locked desk drawer to get the keys to the jail. He was slightly bent over when Chigurh squatted and scooted his manacled hands beneath him to the back of his knees. In the same motion he sat and rocked backward and passed the chain under his feet and then stood instantly and effortlessly.’ (McCarthy, 2006.p5)
‘Moss sat with the heels of his boots dug into the volcanic gravel of the ridge and glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power german binoculars. His hat pushed back on his head. Elbows propped on his knees. The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harness-leather sling was a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton workshirt. ‘(McCarthy, 2006.p8)
Because he is dealing with multiple viewpoints, and three story threads, that will not come together for a while yet, McCarthy has in effect three starting points. Each one carries out the full functions of a single beginning: location, in time and place. Character. Theme. Ambience.
Writing in a different genre entirely, and more than half a century earlier Beatrix Potter covers the same functions in her single-start tale of the Tailor of Gloucester:
‘In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets – when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-lace waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta – there lived a tailor in Gloucester.’ (The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, c1901.)
In a single sentence of 30 words Potter locates us in place and time, introduces the protagonist, and sets the theme and ambience with a series of key words and phrases: ‘swords and periwigs’, ‘full-skirted coats’, ‘flowered lapets’, ‘gentlemen wore ruffles’, ‘gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta’. Note how the ‘swords’ are disarmed by the pairing with ‘periwigs’. Had she written ‘swords and pistols’, they would have remained weapons, and therefore been threatening, but alongside ‘periwigs’ they are reduced to an accessory. We know, from this beginning that the story is about the way gentlemen dressed-up in the past, and that it is about their clothes, rather than their characters or behaviour. There is as little wastage here as there will be on the tailor’s cutting table.
Some writers know exactly what they are doing with their beginnings. Here’s Alan Furst, beginning two of his genre novels in fine style:
‘IN THE PORT OF TANGIER, ON THE LAST DAY OF APRIL, 1941, THE fall of the Mediterranean evening was, as always, subtle and slow.’ (Alan Furst, Dark Voyage, Random House, 2005)
‘On 10th March 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning.’ (Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows,Orion, 2002)
He knows exactly what he wants, or at least, what his genre readers want. In both cases he goes on to develop scenes that pick out and describe his main protagonist. On the Random House website, at one time, there was a page of information about Furst’s books, listing the elements you could depend on in a Furst novel, including the fact that the hero always survives! It may be surprising to find that it is not always surprises that readers are looking for.
In the movie version of Philip Roths’ novel The Human Stain, (Vintage,2005) the deaths of the two main characters open the story at the end of the credits, behind which we have seen them driving the snow covered road to their fatal car crash. In the film, the crash gives opportunity to the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, to begin his voice over story. The book needs no such contrivance, as we expect the narrator to get on with it, and introduce himself, if needs be, later on:
‘It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk-who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty-confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.’ (Roth.2005.p1)
Roth’s opener reveals the first person right away, sets the date, names the location, and the principal character, refers to the second lead, and outlines the plot theme. It gets in a line or two of backstory too, which in this novel will turn out to be important, and so is justified here. It sets its ambience too: neither titillating, comic, nor salacious. Zuckerman is telling his story in a serious voice. Dickens’ opening to Bleak House is a good example too:
‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.’ (Bleak House, Charles Dickens. Undated Victorian edition.)
How similar to the others in what it does. Location, in time and space are the key elements. The precision of each may vary. We may need to know where and when we are in relation to specific events, or we may need to know what sort of place, and whether in time past, present or future.
Raymond Chandler, reportedly, said that if in doubt start by having ‘a man come through a door holding a gun’, but doors and guns locate us in time and space up to a point, and may do so with precision if we specify both, just as Potter’s swords and periwigs do. Another thing that beginnings do, almost always, is give us the narrative voice, the point of view of the story, although, as we have seen in ‘A Canary for One’ (Hemingway, in Complete Short Stories, Scribner, 2003), that may be illusory. ‘Call me Ishmael’ pretty well fixes the narrative of Moby Dick. Going back to Chandler, if we write ‘he came through the door’ it is, at least for the time being, a third person narrative, if we say ‘you came’, a second person, and if we say ‘I came’, a first person one. All points of view can be revealed as first person narratives later on, but getting out of a first person narrative is not so easy.
There is also the general ambience of a piece, or at least its opening mood. The reader has to be put into the frame of mind that suits the story. Dickens, having told us where and when, goes on to elaborate on the London mud, the fog, and so on. It is at the end of an entire chapter, when he has thoroughly soaked us in the location, in time and space, and in the ambience of that time and place, that he finally draws his chapter to a close and introduces the main protagonists.
We do need to know who they are. We need to know which characters to watch for, and we need to know in what frame of mind to watch. We need to know where the storyteller, the narrator, stands, and whether he, or she, or it, expects us to laugh or wince, or be horrified, when something horrible happens to them.
Words begin sentences. Sentences begin paragraphs. Paragraphs begin chapters, and so on up to the books that begin volumes, and the volumes that begin trilogies and more. Each beginning prepares us for what follows, even when it sets us up for a surprise; and we can locate people just as firmly in the unknown as in the revealed. Our understanding of each beginning is modified by what follows, at the level of the sentence, at the level of the umptology.
So, if we look at beginnings, we will expect to find location, in time and space, narrative voice, ambience, and probably more than a hint of what the story will be about. Some writers will do this quicker than others, some will do it better than others, but this is the kit we need to be issued with if we are going to stick with the journey, I suspect. Where we don’t find it, or elements of it, either something unusually clever may going on, or something mundanely not clever.
Partly this is to give the reader something that they can imagine, that they can place the story, and themselves in relation to, but also it is the chance for the writer to place them too, in relation to his narrator, in relation to the viewpoint from which he is writing. Claire Keegan’s collection of stories, Walk The Blue Fields (Faber,2007) seems to do this very strongly with its opening story being told in the second person, which sets the reader up to experience, not only the first story, but all the others (none of which are in this unusual and intimate voice) from a particular perspective.
Beginnings are important because they get us to the endings from the right direction. My favourite old joke is of the yokel who tells the lost city slicker, ‘if I wanted to get to there I wouldn’t start from here,’ not least because it is such an illuminating metaphor for the writer’s task. In an earlier essay in the series I suggested a story was the touch paper to its own ending. Would that make the lighting of the touch paper the best metaphor for a beginning?
There is something else about beginnings too, which might be best shown by looking at other metaphors we might use for how short stories start. Is it like the loosening of a satin ribbon, like the pulling back of a rusty bolt, or like the striking of a match in a dark place? Whichever it might be there would be a particular mood implied about the way we are expected to receive the introduction. This is what I refer to as ambience. Even if it changes as the story progresses, we need to have a sense of it right from the start, and in the case of some stories it is as important as the actions.
Many of the works quoted in this essay are of course novels, not short stories, but what they illustrate may well hold true for the finer form too. Few short stories can be as leisurely in their beginnings as Dickens, we might think, but if the rest of the story is about the ending, then isn’t the rest of the story in a sense its beginning? As to McCarthy’s trio of separate starts, well, most stories don’t need to do that, but where they weave more than one thread they may, and what he does over several pages, might be paralleled in several paragraphs, sentences, or even clauses.
Readings for Writers: 8 – links, separators & packages, Yuri Nagibin – Making Snowmen (transl. P. Foote) in Soviet Short Stories (ed Richard Newnham. Penguin 1963)
Pursuing my attempts to get to grips with the form of the short story, and specifically with the role of the ending I’d begun to dip randomly into the anthologies on my shelves, to see if my theories held up, and to find new variations I could add to the Readings for Writers series. Yuri Nagibin’s Making Snowmen was one I turned up. This 1960s story is split into sections, some of them quite long, some only a few lines, separated by a line or two of white space. At that time Soviet writers were rigidly limited to a 5,000 word maximum for the genre. This is a parallel text edition, occupying just under ten pages in both the English and Russian versions, and though I have no Russian whatsoever, the visible variations in the layout of the two texts provoked some reflections on the structure of the story. What is interesting is that these sections are not the same in the two versions. Not one of the breaks is common to both.
That this is not a result of differences in the space needed to say the same thing in two languages can be detected by the happy co-incidence that many of the sections begin, or end, with character names, which even I can decipher in the Cyrillic alphabet. Which gives the opportunity to look at those differing section breaks, and to examine whether they are in the nature of the ‘breaks’ or ‘links’ which I have suggested elsewhere would be the hallmarks of writing intended to be read at one sitting, or over several. Of course, the answer is rather pre-empted by the fact that all of them, in the other language, have been closed, and must be seen therefore as links, but it is worth examining them, and seeing how, even when divided by a line of typless space, they are still links.
The story is simple. It tells of a group of Soviet schoolchildren taken out by a young woman teacher to build snowmen. One boy, Minayev, builds something that is more like a piece of modern art than a traditional snowman: ‘it is impossible to make out where the head is or where the arms and legs are.’ (Newnham, p177) and the story is as much about the epiphanies experienced by the teacher, as she recognises, and then sees the implications of, this quality in his work, and in childhood itself: ‘Today Minayev has been revealed to me, and what of the others?’ (Newnham, p181) In fact the story has many subtexts to explore, and I suspect that in the original there would be other subtleties that have not survived the translation. The first section break occurs in the English version, and splits two paragraphs that seamlessly lead on from one to the other.
‘It is as well that elephants are rarely met with in the streets of Moscow.
The street helps the teacher.’ (Newnham, p165)
That last sentence of the first paragraph of the story, seems to me to mark the ‘end of the beginning’, in that by the time we get to it we know where we are, know quite a bit about the teacher, have a sense of the ambience, and will have detected an omniscient third person narrator. It and the next two paragraphs are all about the journey to the snowy waste ground where the snowmen will be made, but the English version puts in another section break, after the second paragraph. After describing impatient vehicles brought to a halt while the children cross the road we get:
‘But they all wait for the children to cross.
The most dangerous part of the journey is over.’ (Newnham, p167)
Clearly, this is a link, rather than a break. The Russian version makes its first section after this, when the whole journey is over, and the making of the snowmen is beginning. ‘In pairs, just as they had walked, the children set about making snowmen.’ (Newnham, p167) Four descriptive paragraphs begin here, which the English version has as a section group, but which the Russian splits into three, and it begins to appear as if the criteria for those splits must be different for the author, and for the translator. None of them are ‘put down and pick up again’ splits though. They are perceptions of where the natural segments of the story end and begin, but none of them bring it to a halt.
The Russian appears to have some markers that the Englishman misses. The wind, and its effects on the teacher, ends two of the Russian’s sections, having a whole paragraph to itself in the second of the pair, and starts a third. By now we see that both versions have a very long section, but the English starts sooner, the Russian comes later, and I began to wonder if it was perhaps themes, being introduced and examined that formed the basis for these. Could it be that different weighting of the importance of these is guiding where the two have chosen to make their divisions?
The English version cuts just after Kostya, a character with whom the teacher is perhaps romantically involved, is introduced, and three times more before the parallel Russian section, which began before his arrival, ends. So his entire episode is, in the Russian version, incorporated into the one in which the teacher has experienced her crucial revelation. This is about the nature of the snowman that the child Minayev has made, of its significance to him, and to her, and to the greater Soviet society. The English version sees this as a series of episodes.
I begin to recognise that the changes in the placing of these section endings gives me a chance to examine not only how these points of connection and disconnection work, but also to look at the concepts behind what is included in the packages within them. Perhaps I should say here that my first, and second thought, was that for the translator to move these ‘white space’ breaks was fundamentally unsound.
The Russian original has eleven major sections. The translation has only seven. Right from the beginning the differences seem to change the emphasis of the story. The original has the whole journey to the waste ground as one section, followed by a short section describing the place of arrival, another of the children, and another of the teacher setting them to work. The translation splits the journey into a section focussed on the teacher, followed by one focussed on the traffic, and then plunges into a long section, until the teacher has rebuked Kostya for talking to her at work.
It was when I reached this point that I noticed how those changes affect the story. The beginning of a new paragraph catches our attention, as does the end of one. The white space break enhances, deepens that effect. So once more I’m brought back, even when intending to look at the content of the sections, to noticing where they have been made to end and to begin.
As a general rule, it seems to me that the translated version draws attention away from the interactions of the teacher with the children, and towards her internal struggles. Yet, in both versions it is apparent that the sections are broken at points of change or decision. They fall between actions and reactions. Between revelations and consequential decisions. In a sense they become questions and answers. Another specific case is worth mentioning, for in the translated version a break comes, after a long section of snowman making, where the teacher rebukes Kostya:
‘Vera Ivanova turned away, proud and stern, and walked off.
I’ll come after work, said Kostya to the back of her head.’ (Newnham, p175)
Elevating this from a paragraph break to a section break cannot help but elevate also its importance as an event in the story. A little before in a section of the original we have her considering her decisions over the carrot-nose prize. This section is preceded by one that ends with the wind guessing ‘her defencelessness’, and is followed by one beginning with: ‘and the cutting icy wind still keeps blowing’. These changes seem to edge the story, in translation, towards the personal, and away from what I might call the epic; from the societal to the individual. Would this echo the natural tendencies of writer and translator, coming as they must from their different historical, political and social backgrounds?
An exercise in teaching English grammar is to play the ‘fat policeman’s wife’, where the meaning of that phrase is ambiguous, and depends upon which of the other two words you think the middle one belongs to. Perhaps the events, observations, episodes, call them what you will, the individual images and elements of information, description and conversation that we are given in a story can also be subject to a similar ambiguity.
My original thought was to look at endings, and to test whether or not stories short enough to be read at a sitting were connected rather than divided at the points where the segments that they are made up of, large and small, were defined.
However, the dividings shown here may not be to do with stopping and restarting the story, so much as to do with grouping those elements according to the themes they are examining, and to drawing attention to particular points within the story. Will the end of the story have the same loading though, as the ones I have examined previously?
In the English version, the last two paragraphs are at the end of a page long section. In the Russian they are separated by that white space, and before that there has been a very short section, which breaks the thread of the story quite explicitly:
‘Vera Ivanova gave a laugh and, clapping her hands shouted: Children, time to go home!’ (Newnham, p183)
This is the ‘beginning of the end’, and the spacing separates out the rest of it. Here, in the first paragraph of the last section the author has the children preparing to go back to school. In the second paragraph the child, Minayev, comments on his own snowmen, of which by now we know the full significance, to him, to the teacher, and to us, and that comment might be an end. It is a statement of perceived failure, that we know is misplaced, because it is from understanding his work, as one might understand a piece of art, that the teacher has made her leaps in perception. Yet, the story does not end there. He is made to act as well as speak, and makes a physical gesture of something like love to the little girl with whom he has been paired during the story. This act of caring reminds us of the relationship between Kostya and the teacher, points to the future, and makes a general statement about human relations in a world where snowmen are being made, and where art, pointing up the tragedies of the human condition is made. It also separates his perception from the teacher’s, and from ours. Take away that last image, and you take away the assertion of that separation, and again the story is diminished.
Just as the beginning of a story does all the jobs I have suggested that this beginning does, so does the end carry out certain functions: of describing where we have arrived, and of showing us where we shall leave the main characters, and of giving us a state of mind in which to leave the story, but it also, as with all the stories I have looked at up to now, gives us the point of having read the story. It is knowing what he does, and what he says after the story has taken place that completes and validates our experience of it.
If nothing else, this exercises raises the question of how much we may change a story without any changes to the text, other than merely by the act of re-grouping the paragraphs and, extending the thought, by changing the junctions between paragraphs. Where we put our breaks, sentence breaks, paragraph breaks, section breaks, may change not only the content, but the relative importance, and indeed the meanings of the verbal packages we are creating, and by doing so may change the focus of the entire piece.
One more point, which at first glance runs counter to where I began, about links and separators, is that if you expect the reader to carry on reading, perhaps you can bring him to a complete halt: confront him with a conclusion, of sorts, a change of location, a change of time, a change of narrative voice or point of view, a change of subject, theme, or indeed ambience. You can bring him to an obstacle that stops the story in its tracks, and then you can set him off again, and be confident that he will jump the gap, and continue reading, because, it being a short story, he will be predisposed to do so. Conversely, in a novel, where you know the reader is going to take a break at some point, you do all you can to keep him going, end your chapters in the middle of a conversation, between a question and its answer, between a thought and the action it implies, between an action and its consequences. And of course novelists often do just this, and take that impetus to see the reaction to the action, to discover the consequence, to hear the answer, and use it to hook one chapter to another, often squeezing in those changes I mentioned, of theme, location and so on, before returning to what the reader needs to know.
How often to we see books referred to as page turners, a description I can’t recall seeing applied to an individual short story.
Let’s see some examples: Watch Tolkien spring us over the mammoth gap between volumes one and two of his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
‘At length they [Frodo & Sam] came to land upon the southern slopes of Amon Lhaw. There they found a shelving shore, and drew the boat out, high above the water, and hid it as well as they could behind a great boulder. Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, The Lord of the Rings, Unwin Paperbacks 3rd ed.1979, p529)
‘Aragorn sped on up the hill. Every now and again he bent to the ground. Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed the path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking.’ (The Two Towers, Book III, The Lord of the Rings, Unwin Paperbacks 3rd ed.1979,p12)
What we have here is an ending that projects two of the main characters into the unknown, and the next stage of the story, but leaves unresolved what has happened to the rest of them. It is followed by a beginning that goes back to pick up that thread, leaving the two main characters out of our sight for the rest of the book, a matter of some 258 pages, in my edition! Our need to know about them carries us through the whole of Book III. Our need to know about their companions carries us across the physical gap of books II and III, from Volume One, of the trilogy, to Volume Two. A comparison, in detail, with what the Peter Jackson film trilogy does with these events might be fruitful, but here isn’t the place for it.
A comparison with a short story now: from James Joyce’s Grace, (in Dubliners, Minerva, 1992).
‘It’s very kind of you to bring him home,’ she said. ‘Not at all,’ said Mr Power. He got up on the car. As it drove off he raised his hat to her gaily. ‘We’ll make a new man if him,’ he said. ‘Good-night Mrs Kernan.’
Mrs Kernan’s puzzled eyes watched the car till it was out of sight. Then she withdrew them, went into the house and emptied her husband’s pockets. (Joyce, 1992, p239)
Here, the white space gap between two sections of the story is adroitly jumped by the character’s name. Attention is drawn to her at the end of the first section, and her actions commence the second. This story is split into three sections though, and the white space gap between the second and third of them is jumped rather differently.
‘I bar the magic-lantern business.’ Everyone laughed heartily. ‘There’s a nice Catholic for you,’ said his wife. ‘No candles!’ repeated Mr Kernan obdurately. ‘That’s off!’
The transept of the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street was almost full; and still at every moment gentlemen entered from the side door and, directed by the lay brother, walked on tiptoe along the aisles until they found seating accommodation.’ (Joyce, 1992, p272)
The white space is no broader, but the leap the reader has to make is. At the end of the previous section the characters have been talking to us in the bedroom of Mr Kernan, with brief commentary from the author. Suddenly, we are elsewhere, and unidentified characters are entering a church. The author is speaking directly to us, and carries on doing so until near the end of the story two pages later, when he allows the officiating priest to speak.
In this transition there is no pressing need to know, equivalent to what happened to Frodo and Sam, or to what happened to Aragorn and the others. Neither is there the neat slip from one view to another of the same character, at the same place, and a mere moment later. Instead we have a shift of time, place, characters, narrator, and ambience, for the scene in the bedroom has been jocular, and the scene set in the church is sombre.
Could it be the brevity of the form that enables this sort of switch to work, without fear of the reader not making the leap? Joyce of course went on to write with an attention to detail that might have made this a conscious decision, but most of us probably make these connections, linking and separating the parts of our stories, purely by instinct. If we do, then that instinct, like the physical senses, may be one that is sharper in some of us than in others. Is it also like a muscle, in that we can make it stronger by conscious exercise?
If stories are made up of scenes, of packages of information, of ideas threaded together, of the unexpected juxtaposed, or the familiar shown unfamiliarly, and must be consumed in set sequences, be consumed in sequence themselves, a train of beginnings and middles and endings, then, to push the metaphor a little further, the couplings between them and how they work, must be an important part of our business as writers.
Readings for Writers: 9 – Obscurity and Uncertainty, Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl, Richard Coover, in The Penguin Book of International Short Stories.
The search for variations in how short stories end led me to this dark tale of passion and revenge. I had not encountered Coover before, and he seemed to be breaking all my rules, at first sight.
Without an explicit time scale, and with multiple narrators, the points of commencement and ending for the reader seem to be without logic or reason. The story seems to begin and end randomly.
Yet that randomness is only in relation to itself. The events described and presented are shown out of sequence and from different points of view, but that does not mean they do not have a cumulative effect on the reader. Nor does it mean that the reader’s ultimate response is not triggered by the last section that he reads.
The layout of the text emphasises the disjointed presentation of the story events, comprising 38 sections (numbered in brackets where cited) of between four lines and a page and a half duration. These are divided by white space, like the sections of Nagibins’ Making Snowmen. An ambiguous line of dots in my edition, between what I believe to be the 29th and 30th sections, may signal nothing more than a section break that coincides with a page break.
The story draws us on through these disparate sections as much by what they don’t say as what they do. We read on to find explanations, but find instead convolutions and complications. Three modes of narrative voice emerge: the third person, reporting in both the past tense and again in a present tense that seems almost like a disguised first person, and the second person in the present tense, an uncomfortable voice of the narrator talking to himself.
None of them gives the whole story, and that makes this one of those stories where the position of the omniscient third person narrator, in relation to the story, to the characters in the story, and to the reader, becomes noticeably important. How close in time, and space, are they to it? Is the story in fact over, or is it still being played out?
Let’s look in a little more detail at the content. The opening paragraph, which is seven lines long and makes up the first section opens with a description.
‘Night on the lake. A low cloud cover. The boat bobs silently, its motor for some reason dead. There’s enough light in the far sky to see the obscure humps of islands a mile or two distant, but up close: nothing. There are islands in the intermediate distance, but their uncertain contours are more felt than seen. The same might be said, in fact, for the boat itself. From either end, the opposite end seems to melt into the blackness of the lake. It feels like it might rain.’ (1)
I’ve quoted in its entirely, because there is a lot to say about it. In his book on English grammar, written in the 1960s (A Grammar of Modern English. W.H.Mittins, Methuen 1973), Mittins makes a distinction between ‘labels’ and ‘messages’. Labels, lacking a verb, are incomplete sentences, and act like verbal still photographs. Their use is common in contemporary fiction, and here, Coover uses two, right at the start of his piece. Every part of this section conveys obscurity and uncertainty. The final sentence, ‘It feels like it might rain’, brings those qualities intimately close.
Of the four functions of beginnings, setting, character, theme, and ambience, this paragraph clearly does two, the first and the last, so whatever we may end up saying about the end of the piece, its beginning has strong elements of conventionality.
The second section is also a single paragraph, and it tackles the other functions, bringing in three of the four characters, and introducing the theme, albeit obliquely, which is of the relationships between them: ‘Imagine Quenby and Ola at the barbeque pit.’ (2)
The third section names the fourth character. We have been prepared for these four to be what the story is about by the title, and that title arranges them in pairs that the story will cut across. It begins with his location: ‘In the bow sat Carl.’(3) The location of Carl is critical in this story, because he is the second person, addressing himself, and in the third person narrations, the narrative voice seems always closer to Carl than to the others. In the scenes in which he is alone, we are close by. In the scenes where the others are, we seem to watch from a distance, and it is through his eyes that we seem to be looking. That closeness is achieved by having him speak at the start of sections:
‘Say, what’s that whistling sound, Swede?’ (7)
‘Well, I guess you know your way around this lake pretty well. Eh, Swede?’(11)
‘Listen, Swede, you need some help? Swede didn’t reply so Carl stood up in a kind of crouch….’(17)
Sometimes Coover begins a section with Carl’s thoughts, or simply with a third person observation, but always up close:
‘Yes, goddamn it, it was going to rain. Carl sucked on a beer in the bow. Swede tinkered quietly with the motor in the stern.’(15)
In the lines quoted above there are two references to what has already passed, to it being about to rain, and to Carl sitting in the bows. These repetitions, and ones like them, give the story its density, which deepens its obscurity, and they don’t do much to clear our vision, nor to lessen our uncertainty. The placing of Swede, above, is a glimpse, like that of the ‘obscure humps of islands’, into the ‘opposite end’ of the boat. Returning to the beginning briefly, the fourth section is where the second person narrative begins, picking up on the gloomy ambience of the first.
‘You know the islands are out there, not more than a couple of hundred yards probably, because you’ve seen them in daylight. All you can make out now is here and there the pale stroke of what is probably a birch trunk, but you know there are spruce and jack pines as well, and balsam firs and white cedars and Norway pines and even maples and tamaracks. Forests have collapsed upon forests on these islands.’(4)
Whose mind we are in here is not yet clear, but the second person voice makes us, the readers, close in there with whoever it is. And that ‘pale stroke’ seems more of bodies than of trees, which we can’t see the forests for in this paragraph.
When Quenby and Ola are presented it is always from a more distant viewpoint, with an exception that we’ll examine later. We have already seen them at the barbeque pit, but we watch them elsewhere too.
‘Ola, telling the story, laughed brightly.’(8)
‘Quenby at the barbeque pit, grilling steaks.’(12)
The latter of the two, another of those still photographs. A more intimate viewpoint is taken at other parts of the story, but it still separates us, and the implied watcher, from the one being watched:
‘She is an obscure teasing shape, now shattering the sheen of moonlight on the bay, now blending with it.’(9)
When Coover wants us really up close to Ola or Quenby, it is when they are being made love to, if that is the right expression:
‘The old springs crush and grate like crashing limbs, exhausted trees, rocks tumbling into the bay, like the lake wind rattling through dry branches and pine needles. She is hot, rich, softly spread. Needful. ‘oh yes!’ She whispers.’(5)
The quotation above is another complete section, and it follows on from the one that ends ‘forests have collapsed upon forests on these islands’. Here surely is an example of sections being linked rather than separated, with the actual description of the one melding into the metaphor of the next, and see too how, the metaphor having been made, Coover eases the section away from it and into the new actuality by the end. To my thinking this fifth section is ‘the end of the beginning’, completing the function of beginnings by making explicit the theme of the piece.
The test I was making of this story, or more correctly of my theory, concerns a story being read for the sake of its ending. Throughout this story, with its multiple narrative perspectives, its convoluted time sequences, its back referencing, and that impenetrable ambience of obscurity and uncertainty, Coover has held our understanding at bay. Location, character, the theme of lust and betrayal, and of revenge are all presented here, but is there a summation?
Towards the end of the piece Coover begins to play on the title, by giving us four sections that begin with the names of all four characters. They are not consecutive sections, although the second and third sit next to one another. The fourth begins the final section of the story. I shall list them, following a reminder of the title:
‘Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl’ (title)
‘Swede, Quenby, Ola, Carl’(26)
‘Swede, Carl, Ola, Quenby’(31)
‘Carl, Quenby, Swede, Ola’(32)
‘Swede, Quenby, Carl, Ola’(38)
Is it too fanciful too suggest that even these four names, repeated as they are in varying patterns, imply a story? Let’s go to the very end, a two word label: ‘Telling stories’. Is that what this story is about? Ola tells a story, within the story, of her father shooting a cat. We are reminded of that, in this last single paragraph section:
‘Swede, Quenby, Carl, Ola….The story and the laughter and off to bed. The girl has omitted one detail from the story. After her daddy’s shot, the cat had plummeted to the earth. But afterwards, there was a fluttering sound on the ground where it hit. Still, late at night, it caused her wonder. Branches scrape softly on the roof. Squirrels whistle and scamper. There is a rustling of beavers, foxes, skunks and porcupines. A profound stillness, soon to be broken surely by rain. And far out on the lake, men in fishing boats, arguing, chattering, opening beer cans. Telling stories.’(38)
The obscurity and uncertainty remain, but there are key words, showing like ‘humps of islands’. ‘Still’, locates Ola in the present of the teller. ‘Scrape’, being present tense, locates the narrator in the present of the telling, and his present tense description of the island follows. Are those four animals he mentions metaphorical as well as actual? (Quenby, Ola, Carl, Swede?) And the labels that end the piece, setting the scene we shall leave, as similar ones set the scene we began with, do they not imply that not much time has passed: ‘surely to be broken by rain’? And the men on the lake, who are they? What are they arguing about? Stories, after all, are a form of lie.
Here is another ending like the ones I identified in Dorothy Parker, where the story is still going on, is still unresolved, but the ambience of it, threatening us with its uncertainties and obscurities, is quite different to Parker’s. Here is another ending like Hemingway’s too, in the sense that it leaves us with questions unanswered, questions that may drive us to go back into the darkness of the story in order to find them.
And now I find myself wanting to add, if not another Amendment to my working definition, then at least a provisional codicil, to the effect that short stories, although perhaps not exclusively or invariably, contrive to send us back into themselves; that they possess a circularity that is not simply of form, the echoing of a beginning at an end, the repetition of a scene or a metaphor, but of a content that needs to be examined, and re-examined, to be visited and re-visited in the search for a resolution that may lie only in the acceptance of the obscurities and uncertainties that we have been presented with.
Readings for Writers 10: What the others Say: H.E. Bates, Frank O’Connor & others
I always think you should delay the research until you’ve written the story. So it’s after several thousand words of speculation, and looking at short stories, that I turn to what other writers have said on the subject. The first place to look is the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, which has an extensive entry on the Short Story. This turns out to be a history of the genre, of its development through sub-genres and nations, rather than a definition. It is where I got the germ of my idea for this study though, with the reference to Poe’s definition of the short story as needing ‘anything from half an hour to one or two hours for its perusal’. This was what led me to consider the usefulness of the idea that a short story could and should be read at a sitting. All the other ideas I have explored have flowed from this.
The dictionary is short on other definition though, as are many writers who have ventured the subject in their introductions to anthologies and collections. David Hughes, in his introduction to the 1997 Folio Society English Short Stories, doubts we can, or need to look for definitions. ‘Brevity’ and ‘narrative’ will do for him. Frank Delaney, in the introduction to the same publisher’s Irish Short Stories, quotes other writers, and offers some definition by exclusion. He tells us what the short story is not. Brian Masters, introducing Folio’s French Short Stories, is more bullish, identifying four ‘attributes’, which he explores in some depth. ‘Simplicity, obviously contrived, and with a clear, urgent purpose’ comes, usefully, from him. Delaney and Hughes both compare the short story with poetry. Hughes says the short story needed ‘poetry to become too esoteric’ for it to flourish, and Delaney puts it second to poetry. Hughes points to the demise of the essay allowing the rise of the short story. I can’t help wondering if the short story, in its turn, might become ‘too esoteric’, depending on who takes it, and makes it their own. Magazines too, Hughes says, are needed, although Richard Ford, in his introduction to the Granta Book of the American Short Story, suggests that it is only because they are cheaper than anything else to put between the adverts, that magazines will take them. Ford tells us a lot about the short story, so much in fact that I began to think he was telling me nothing. F.C.Green, in the introduction to Everyman’s 1961 edition of French Short Stories of the 19th & 20th Centuries, opens with three ‘attributes’: ‘a profound respect for form, and instinct for clarity and conciseness, and an unerring flair for the truly dramatic situation.’ These compare well with Masters’ four, and both, of course, were introducing French anthologies.
V.S.Pritchett, who seems to be referred to as the leading English proponent of the form more often than he is published, makes a wonderful observation in his introduction to the Oxford Book of Short Stories: ‘the short story springs from a spontaneous poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse.’ (Pritchett,1992, p.xiv)
There are full length studies of the genre, and there are collections of papers and essays pushing research to the depths of that into poetry and the novel. It is worth remembering though, that an analysis of one piece of writing cannot be used as a blueprint to construct another, for my study is not intended to be academic, but to be practical. If short story writing is one of those human games, played one on a side, to twist a phrase, then this study is to answer the question, what sort of game is it, and how do you play, and why, and how do you know when you’ve won, or indeed if you’ve won?
Academic analysis might, and probably does, go far deeper into the products of creative writing than the creators themselves did, and it is when writers attempt to stretch those academics that the danger arises of their works becoming ‘too esoteric.’ Because the implication of that ‘too’ is that it refers to a non-academic audience, people who are sometimes referred to as ‘lay-readers’, as if they were not quite the proper thing.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, I have concentrated on looking at what practising writers have had to say on the subject of the short story, rather than on the published researches of professional analysts. One source for these is the Paris Review Interviews, in the four recently published collections of which several short story writers are included.
Here we find Alice Munro, Dorothy Parker, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Hemingway and others. Generally they talk about the genesis of story, about editors, about rewriting and so on, but rarely about the form itself. Carver, referring to his early years, describes his ‘need to write things I could finish in a hurry and be done with’, an echo of Poe’s time-emphasising definition, but also pointing to Ford’s economic perspective. Carver was in it for the money, and that came quicker with short stories than with novels.
Curiously, whereas writers like Delaney will speculate, in introductions to anthologies, on the nature of the beast they are presenting, the introductions to collections by individual authors, rarely stray from appraisals and avowals of the qualities of the specific works they are introducing. Rarely do writers themselves express opinions, in these situations.
Tobias Wolff gives us a brief author’s note to Our Story Begins (Bloomsbury, 2009), but it is not about the form. Claire Keegan’s collection, Walk The Blue Fields, (Faber, 2007) has no introduction whatsoever. George Moore’s In Minor Keys (Fourth Estate, 1985) has a long retrospective essay, which goes into some detail about his work, but does not ruminate about the nature of the short story as a genre.
Perhaps it is not surprising that an anthology needs to ‘sell’ the form, whereas a collection needs to ‘sell’ the writer, and in interviews writers are likely to reminisce about specific stories, and specific periods in their careers. Two ‘classic’ studies of the Short Story, in English, within my lifetime, which bear comparison are H.E.Bates’ The Modern Short Story1809-1953 (Hale, 1988 ) and Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice (Melville House, 2004). Indeed, the similarities and differences between them were so compelling that, having perused the introduction and contents page of one, while reading the other, I ended up reading them both together, chapter by chapter.
What struck me first was the pattern of similarity. They begin what are in effect histories of the form over the past couple of centuries, at the same date, 1809, and work through that history citing the same writers, often in the same groupings. Now, one might say that they are telling the same history, and if that is it, then we must say that they are telling a ‘received’ history.
These are two different men however, and their approach is different. Both have their agendas, which results in changes of focus, of emphasis in what they find in the writers they cite, though often they find the same thing, but value it differently. Both treat with Hemingway, but where Bates finds the soft centre, O’Connor recoils from the hard shell of macho violence.
‘the legend of Hemingway’s toughness (i.e. emotionlessness, dumbness, thick-skinnedness, etc) had never any basis in fact.’ (Bates, 1988) p177.
‘In these stories practically no single virtue is discussed with the exception of physical courage.’ (O’Connor, 2004) p162.
Yet O’Connor knows his man better than that, and spends several pages explaining Hemingway’s debt to Joyce, a debt that Hemingway himself implies in the Paris Reiew interview of 1958: ‘the influence of his work was what changed everything’. (Paris Review Interviews vol I, 2006) p44.
Both O’Connor and Bates distance themselves from Kipling, yet cannot ignore his importance to the English short story, and both of them, in common with so many writers of introductions to collections and anthologies fall naturally into talking about the genre in terms of national ‘schools’. The American, The Russian, The French, and the Irish are the warp threads of which this cloth is woven. And bear in mind that I have been reading in English, which means that for two of those I have been reading about translations, something that does not seem to be a problem for any of the commentators. Unlike in the case of poetry, no-one makes a fuss about translation in the case of prose fiction. David Lodge deals with this at length in The Language of Fiction (Routledge, 1984) p18-26, discussing the paraphrasing of stories. I shall not attempt to simplify his arguments, but my understanding is that the concern centres around the extent to which the experience of a story is, and more importantly, whether or not it should be, to do with the words themselves or the responses evoked by them referencing the ‘real’ world, which of course means our individual memories of that world. One could devote a whole essay, as people have, whole books in fact, to this issue.
My interest here is to point to the ‘English’ short story, which I left out of my initial list. Partly this is because there appears to be a confusion about what qualifies as an ‘English’ short story, at least when it is mentioned by English writers. Bates remarks that ‘one third of Series I’, and ‘one half of Series II’ of the World Classics anthology, Selected English Short Stories, was written by non-English writers, and counting through the Folio Society anthology of 1997 I found a similar proportion. Of course this may have more to do with the fact that a lot of people who live and work in England, writers included, don’t think of themselves as English, but it may also point to the fact that the genre itself was slow to develop here, and has been slow to win at least commercial acceptance. Writers point to a similar lack of acceptance in America, which was overcome through the magazine market, albeit for reasons of economy, but in England, perhaps in the UK as a whole, the short story is still perceived as the poor relation of the novel, despite repeated campaigns on the web and by small presses.
The genre is international though, and if people who perceive themselves, and are perceived by others to form groups based on race culture or politics within that global group, I suppose we will see those similarities reflected one way or another in what they write. It would not surprise me though if the diversity and homogeneity of stories in national collections, international anthologies, and indeed individual collections, were pretty much the same.
Do Bates and O’Connor give us anything that might be a help to seeing more clearly what we are doing when we are writing a short story? O’Connor gives us the rule of thumb, ‘exposition, development, drama’, but that would apply to any story. Bates gives us definitions from past writers:
‘a story that is not long’. – John Hadfield
‘concrete, to the point, with snap and go and life, crisp and crackling and interesting’. – Jack London
‘the first necessity of the short story, at the set out, is necessariness.’ –Elizabeth Bowen (all from Bates, 1988, p16)
My interest in endings isn’t totally ignored. ‘A story is like a horse race. It is the start and finish that count most’. (Bates, 1988, p17) This last from Ellery Sedgewick in a reference to Hemingway.
The short story is compared with film. Its development is tagged to the development of its readership. O’Connor, throughout his study, requires the story to be about a ‘submerged population’, which, when he was writing, was that underclass of people who form the subject matter of just about everything that is written nowadays. O’Connor wrote his book at the age of sixty. Bates revised the preface to his at a similar age. The Englishman, perhaps appropriately, has more of the old man’s grump about him, with a pessimistic tone, though he recognises that though publishers of short stories, and readers of them, may still be few, writers are many. My interpretation of this is that the writing may be a popular cultural activity without it becoming an economically viable one. I, as an amateur writer myself, don’t have a problem with that. I’ll end this essay with his closing comment, which rather echoes the Pritchett remark quoted earlier, but which opens up an new area of enquiry, rather than closing down the existing ones.
‘the short story is, in fact, a prose poem.’ (Bates, 1988,p12)
Readings For Writers 11: Flash Fictions Flash fiction is a relatively new kid on the block. It is often set at 500 words maximum or thereabouts, often at half that, or half that again. I have seen flash fiction competitions with maximum word counts as low as fifty words, as low as ten. Lower is feasible: I came. I saw. I conquered. I have seen definitions of the short story as being between one thousand and twenty thousand words.
If Flash Fictions are not short stories, what are they? Are they super-short stories? The ones I’ve written have always striven to be complete stories, but many that I have read have seemed to be segments excised from larger pieces, turning points without backstory or future. Some have seemed to be mere snapshots, still photographs; frames taken from moving pictures.
They still have the qualities of the short story though: brevity and narrative, even if the latter is largely implied. They have character, and setting, and theme. They have sequences, of words and images. What follows in each amends and is prejudiced by what has preceded it. They are, above all, almost certain to be read at a sitting. I have encountered a couple of anthologies of them, and a few websites that specialise in them, but not what could be considered a statistically representative sample.
It’s awkward quoting from them as well, that brevity making quotations seem like infringement of copyright, so I have used three of my own attempts, to illustrate at least some of the possibilities of the form. I can quote those in full, and pick them apart, without anyone being offended. The most structured of the three is the shortest, at 97 words. In 100% Proof I was determined to get in a ‘full’ narrative, and so approached each line conscious of its function. What I ended up with appears to me to have something equivalent to chapters. The first three lines establish the location, in time and space, and set up the situation that enables the story to take place. Then two pairs of two lines each introduce the protagonists, tell us who they are, and what they are doing. The main narrative thread of the story is in these lines: action and reaction. The final two lines form a denouement of sorts, implying what is the outcome. There are repetitions of question and answer, and a ‘voice’ that poses the whole story as a sort of question. 100% Proof appeared on the American flash fiction website, Tuesday Shorts.
‘And didn’t the Scots knock all the duty off whisky after they got independence? And didn’t the Whitehall redcoats slap it right back on? And wasn’t that the Solway smugglers back in business, after three centuries?
Now Willie Nobutt was a double-dealing, two-faced liar. Didn’t he tip off the excise men? Mind you, Logan Carr was no better. Hadn’t he filled all but one of the bottles with tap-water, and that the one they drank on the beach to seal the deal?
Sure, and there’s no law against running tap-water, and nobody mentioned the Trade Descriptions Act. ‘
Icarus appeared in the 2006 SlingInk anthology, Jealousy. At 140 words this is actually a smaller story than 100% Proof, though with half-as-many-again words, taking in a turning point in a disintegrating relationship. The setting could be almost anywhere, and at almost anytime, providing with its track, and boundary walls and woods and a main road, a series of metaphors for the journey the couple are making. Its mainspring (if it has one) must be the connection between the question at the end, and the title.
‘If I’d known how easy it would be I might have done it sooner, but if I’d done it sooner, it might not have been so easy.
Besides, it was a spur of the moment decision, a heat of the moment decision. Not even a decision really. A reaction.
It? Disappearing of course. We were in the lane, tight between limestone walls, tight between anger and hurt. She’d stopped me in my tracks, stopped me in that track. Something she’d said. I literally came to a standstill and watched her storm on up the hill.
The curve of wall took her out of sight. That’s when I did it, turned away, walked back to the pine plantation beside the track, slipped in between the trees, headed downhill to the main road. I’ve wondered ever since when she first looked back. ‘
Because the location isn’t specific, other features of the story are emphasised at the beginning, specifically, the narrative point of view, and the ambience of the piece, with its twisted repetitions, conundrums almost. The location comes later, as part of the narrative action, and what happens may not be so important as its genesis, ‘not even a decision really. A reaction’ and its consequence: ‘I’ve wondered ever since.’
Don’t Tell Me The Story, was a runner up in the Spillink Ink Review micro-fiction competition, and is the longest of the three, at 288 words. It seems to me that it is also the least structured, or rather that it is the most like an ‘ordinary’ story. Yet the importance of the paragraphing becomes more obvious. It was written without consciousness of word limits, just to be itself. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a circularity, I hope, the title being about the story, and the story about the title.
Don’t Tell Me The Story
‘Martin sat in the café with a half full cafetiere of coffee in front of him, making it last. He knew they wouldn’t mind, because the place was more than half empty, and he was sitting in one of the window seats, where he could be seen from the street.
It was to see the street that Martin had sat there. He was watching the people. It amazed him to see them walk. How many ways there were of doing it, this simple thing that he had learned before the age of two.
Some walked as if the paved square were a field of mud, pressing their heavy feet firmly down. Some walked as if on a deck, rolling slightly in an unseen swell. Some walked with delicacy, as if something carried above must not be spilled. Some walked with a wobble. Some walked with several wobbles. Some strode. Some scurried. Some advanced, heads turned away, as if they were blind. Some were blind. Some walked as if to avoid being seen. Some walked as if only to be seen.
For each walk, more so than for each person, Martin could imagine a frame of mind: resignation; determination; exultation; relaxation. He could devise stories for each walk: where it came from; where it was going.
The walks were stories in themselves, untold stories: stories you had to make up for yourself, from what you saw. Having said that, for all his imagination, they were false stories, and he knew that for each imagining there would be countless other possibilities, only one of which, at best, might be the true.
The counter staff watched him watching, each one imagining who it was that he was waiting for, and why.’
When you get up to the 500 word mark the stories can seem leisurely by comparison, and can be quite simply very short stories. That pushes them towards briefly sketched characters and settings, and to single thread narratives. The title of ‘flash’ fiction though, to me at least, implies something suddenly, or briefly revealed, as in a flash of lightning, or perhaps something frozen in time, as by a camera’s flash. I don’t see either of those qualities in my three stories though! With the shorter versions, perhaps, we might feel pushed towards the haiku, the conceptual encapsulation of an idea revealed in or by a situation?
There is no doubt that whatever it is, the ‘flash fiction’ is popular at the moment, and fits in with both reading and publishing needs. It takes up very little space, and very little time. It’s a product that can be taken singly, like a shot of espresso, or as a group, like a handful of Bombay mix, and that latter simile strikes me as the most appropriate to end on, as one to make us think about what sort of flash fictions we might write.
Readings For Writers 12: Contemporary Short Story Writers – A Glance at the Last Decade
When does contemporary start? Well, in academic circles it starts about a generation back, but I want to look particularly at stories that have been published within the past decade, from 2000-2010.
I’ll look at two anthologies, two individual collections, a literary journal and a publisher of short stories. The literary journal is ‘Riptide’, a provincial small press publication from the UK associated with Salt publishing. The publisher is Comma Press whose website guidance for writers has plenty to say. The two collections are both from mainstream publishers, being those of the Irish Writer, Claire Keegan (Faber, 2007), and the American, Tobias Wolff (Bloomsbury, 2009). The anthologies are Small Voices/Big Confessions, an international anthology published by the (now defunct) Danish based writers’ web site EditRed (EditRed, 2006), and the anthology containing the winning stories in the 2007 National Short Story Prize. (Atlantic 2007).
Of the five stories in this last anthology four had been published elsewhere, which if nothing else, suggests that they have wide appeal, at least for editors. I’m interested in the Preface though, by Alexander Linklater, an editor with Prospect magazine. Prospect, along with NESTA and Radio 4, support this competition and provide the judging. The Preface points out that ‘the daft idea that storytelling was outdated’ had gained currency since the 1980s. It goes on to give a definition of the form as one ‘that the reader can absorb in a single sitting’, (2007 National Short Story Prize, pviii) which is somewhere we’ve been before. Riptide’s Ginny Baily & Sally Flint echo this in their editorial to the first issue: ‘it [the short story] can be read in one gulp;’ (Riptide vol 1, 2007)
The Forewords, jacket notes, and author’s comments to the other collections are more interested in the content, and in Wolff’s case, in the process of constantly revising with each subsequent publication. The process, he is telling us, is continuous, the product provisional. The editor at EditRed, and the copywriter for Claire Keegan’s collection tell us what the stories are about, because they know, that for the lay reader, that is what we are interested in.
Comma Press is not slow to tell us what it doesn’t want: the list is extensive. I have never written anything that doesn’t infringe at least two of their ‘don’ts’, and that includes all the short stories I’ve published or won prizes with. But they are clear about what a short story is, and I have to agree with them: ‘Short stories are all about their endings. A short story IS an ending. If that’s not in place, there’s nothing there.’ (Comma Press website, URL http://www.commapress.co.uk/?section=FAQ, accessed 12/08/10).
Is there a common structure here? Something recognisable in the form that connects these stories to that overcoat of Gogol’s? E.M Forster, writing about the novel, suggested that we imagine writers of all times writing in the same room, at the same time, influenced perhaps by each other, but not seeing themselves as part of a movement, or a counter-movement, that later critics would have recognised. Can we imagine short story writers in the same room, or one next door?
‘Spring had come. I’d been running round all day with Slog and we were starving.’ (Slog’s Dad by David Almond in Atlantic Books, 2007, p1)
‘When sunlight reaches the foot of the dressing table, you get up and look through the suitcase again.’ (The Parting Gift, in Walk The Blue Fields, by Claire Keegan, Faber 2007, p3)
‘In one of our government departments…but perhaps I had better not say which one.’ (The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol, in Russian Short Stories, Folio Society, 1997, p29)
‘Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.’ (Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne in American Short Stories, Folio Society, 1997, p19)
Just as images evoked by a story will be influenced by the evocations already experienced, so our writing must be influenced, even if subconsciously, by the reading that has preceded it. Yet what each of us has read will vary. We will not necessarily have read evenly from all past years, nor in order of writing, and besides, some writers are always more modern than others. We will not have all read similarly, nor will we have been influenced in similar ways. The fact that we are writing the same distance of years from Gogol as someone else does not mean that we are at the same distance from his writing, nor in the same orientation to him. We write in view of our own experience, of the world, and of other writing, whoever and wherever, and whenever we write. What we bring to it as individuals might always trump what we may think of as our common cultural heritages. We might be influenced in a second hand sense by what we have not read, but we can’t be by what has not yet been written, something that Forster’s otherwise attractive suggestion overlooks. There is a more specific question to be addressed here. Novice writers are often exhorted to read, in order to learn their craft, and the assumption may be made that it is to read their contemporaries they are being encouraged, yet the Paris Review interviews, time after time, suggest that many of the great writers of the past were not too concerned with what their contemporaries were doing. It was to those who went before that they were responding, if their response was to writers at all. It is for the future, perhaps, to look back and see the ways in which we conformed to, and diverged from, what was going on around us. As writers, rather than sellers of writing, we must keep our focus fixed on what it is we think we are trying to say, and the means we have chosen to say it.
Readings for Writers 13: – Provisional Conclusions
A correspondent reacting to the introduction to At A Sitting caused me to look beyond the minutiae of beginnings and endings, towards the larger question of what a story is supposed to do. All these end-loading effects I have been looking at are spurs to projection, or revision, reaffirmation, or emphasis, to hammering home the nail that is the story. But what is the nail itself?
This study trawls through short stories in the hope of coming up with a definition, or definitions that will be helpful to writers. I started with the premise that short stories are ‘pieces of prose fiction intended to be read at a sitting’, and went on to suggest that the ends of them are the point of the reading. But can I add to this something about what we might get out of going through this process? If the ending is the point, then it is the arrival not the journey that matters. What are we arriving at? Could it be an awareness that we have achieved as a result of reading the story? Does the experience of the journey change our perception of the destination? What’s a writer trying to do, in a short story, or perhaps even in a long one?
Is he trying to manoeuvre you, the reader, into a position from which the view you will get is the same as his? That wouldn’t mean he was going to try to make you think the same as he thinks. He doesn’t necessarily want you to see it the same way, but he does want you to see it from the same perspective, from the same point of view. That’s why the point of view a story is told from is so important. And with a short story I’m pretty sure that the view he finally wants to show you is the one he finally does show you, and the position he wants you to see it from is the position that the rest of the story has manoeuvred you into! All those interesting details and events and character insights are part of that manoeuvring process, and the final scene, the final picture that he shows you, may well be a viewing of what’s already gone before. It might equally be a view of where you’ve arrived, or of where you can’t help but go, but the key point is that it is a view, and a viewpoint to which you have been brought by the story so far.
Martin Amis, in his Paris Review interview, makes a similar point when he compares the competing writers of subsequent generations. ‘My father said to me that when a writer of twenty five puts pen to paper he’s saying to the writer of fifty that it’s no longer like that, it’s like this.’ (Amis, in The Paris Review Interviews, vol III, Picador 2008. p338.) The key point here is that he assumes both generations are trying to tell it as ‘it is’, which of course is really only what it looks like to them.
There must surely also be an option for writers to want to show us what it might be like, if circumstances were different. Utopian, or indeed dystopian visions of the future, the present or the past may be written as oblique analyses of the writer’s own world, but they might also be speculations about alternatives to it.
In all of these cases there is an underlying assumption that the author is telling us a story that at some level we could believe might be true, and perhaps for the writer too it is an attempt to validate such a belief. I have written stories, whether successful or not is beside the point, that have to a large degree been experiments to see if a particular set of circumstances, of outlooks on life, could be made credible.
Another point Amis raises is that of the distinction between storytelling and creating what might be called a linguistic experience. ‘Anthony Burgess said there are two kinds of writers, A-writers and B-writers. A-writers are storytellers, B-writers are users of language.’ (Amis, 2008.p343)
This dichotomy is at the heart of chattering about writing. Amis goes on to say, ‘if the prose isn’t there you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight, and form’ (Amis,2008. p343). He throws in a few comparisons, ‘décor in restaurants’, painters that ‘can do hands’, to elaborate the point, seeing himself as one of the B-writers. My point is that even if you are a user of language you have to use it for something, and that something is to say ‘it’s like this’, to use his phrase, and saying ‘it’s like this’, is in effect, storytelling.
Echoing Amis is Guy De Maupassant, in a quotation from his preface to Pierre et Jean (1897), by Brian Masters (Brian Masters Introduction to French Short Stories, Folio, 1998): ‘les grandes artistes sont ceux qui imposent a l’humanite leur illusion particulere.’ Or in other words, they say ‘it’s like this.’ In the same introduction Masters visits our previous examination of ‘end-loading’ in the short story:
‘(an) attribute shared by most of these short stories: the deft use of a laconic closing line, usually ironic, always surprising, and so satisfying to the intellect that the entire preceding story seems in retrospect to be a preparation for it.’ (Masters, xii)
Masters puts his own gloss on this:
‘in the short story (where) the writer’s task is not to engage and enlarge the reader’s imagination, but to overwhelm it with his own.’ (Masters, xiv)
In an earlier essay, I suggested that a short story might be the touch paper to its own ending. I was thinking of stories like those of Ambrose Bierce, one of which, The Coup de Grace, I suggested packed all its power into the last two words. Brian Masters quotes a Zola story that he seems to think does the same: ‘Once read, the two words at the end of his ‘Attack on the Mill’ are unlikely ever to be forgotten’. (Masters, xiii)
If this is true, and I suspect it might be, does it not raise the possibility that a short story, once the ending is known, is like a one shot pistol that has been discharged? On balance I think not. A writer friend of mine has said that for him poetry is writing ‘to be read again’, and I think with the best short stories that would be true too. Watching a flower open does not lose its appeal because we know what the bloom will look like.
The working definition I began with, the vague idea of what I might be doing when writing a short story, was that a short story ‘is a piece of prose fiction intended to be read at a sitting’. I went on to suggest a first amendment that ‘the purpose of which is to get to the end’. Could I now add Amis’s suggestion, that it is ‘to say it’s like this?’
I think not, because Amis’s idea applies to all writing, not just the short story, but Brian Masters’ contention might make a good second amendment. The line I would choose though, would not be ‘a short story is intended to overwhelm the reader’s imagination with the writer’s’, but the rather more prosaic idea that ‘the entire story seems’ to be ‘a preparation’ for its ending.
So, after several chapters and more than twenty thousands of words, lets re-state the working definition:
A short story is a piece of prose intended to be read at a sitting, and the purpose of which is to get to the end, which the entire preceding story seems in retrospect to be a preparation for. The next question is, of course, does any of this help us to write one of the d—-d things!
Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, Penguin, 1999 (revised by C.E.Preston)
Gourevitch, Philip. The Paris Review Interviews, vols 1-4. Canongate, 2006-8
Lodge, David. The Language of Fiction, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1984 Lodge, David. Consciousness & the Novel, Secker & Warburg, 2002 McKee, Robert. Story, Methuen, 1999
Studies of the Short Story
Bates, H.E. The Modern Short Story 1809-1953, Hale, 1988 (revised intro,1971)
Bayley, John. Introduction to Russian Short Stories, Folio Society, 1997
Delaney, Frank. Introduction to Irish Short Stories, Folio Society, 1999 Ford, Richard. Introduction to The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, Granta, 2007
Hughes, David. Introduction to English Short Stories, Folio Society, 1997
O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice, Melville House, 2004 Pritchett V.S. Introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, OUP, 1992
Short Story Anthologies & Collections not included above Abrahams, Wiliam (ed). American Short Stories, Folio Society, 1997 Bates, H.E. The Watercress Girl, Country Book Club, 1963 Boynton & Mack(eds).
Introduction to the Short Story, Heineman, USA, 4th ed.1992
Carpenter & Neumeyer(eds). Elements of Fiction, Brown, USA, 1974 Chekhov, Anton. Chekhov’s Short Stories, Folio Society,
Dick, Philip K. Human Is? Gollancz, 2007
Green F.C. French Short Stories of the 19th & 20th Centuries, Everyman, 1961
Greene, Graham. The Last Word and other stories, Penguin, 1991 Halpern, D.(ed) The Penguin Book of International Short Stories 1945-1985, Penguin 1988
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of, The Finca Vigia Edition, Scribner, 2003
Joyce, James. Dubliners, Minerva, 1992
Keegan, Claire. Walk The Blue Fields, Faber, 2007
Masters, Brian. Introduction to French Short Stories, Folio Sociaty, 1998
Moore, George. In Minor Keys, The Uncollected Stories, Fourth Estate, 1985
Munro, Alice. Runaway, Vintage, 2006
Newnham, R.(ed) Soviet Short Stories, Penguin, 1963
Ramsden, Chris Lee (Fwd). Small Voices, Big Confessions, EditRed, (Denmark) 2006
Slingink (pubishers) Jealousy, a collection, 2007 (flash fiction) Footprints, a collection, 2006 (flash fiction)
Steele, Alan. First Volume of Selected Modern Stories, Penguin, 1939 Stewart, Michael (ed) The Grist Anthology of New Writing, Grist Books, 2009
Taylor, Peter. In The Miro District & other stories Carroll & Graf NY, 1977
Wolff, Tobias. Our Story Begins, Bloomsbury, 2009
Magazines & Journals devoted to or biased towards the short story Baily & Flint(eds). Riptide vols 1& 2,
Dirt Pie, 2007-8 Short Story
Related websites (accessed on 14/08/2010) American Literature http://www.americanliterature.com/ (classic, out of copyright short stories from around the world)
Athregeum http://www.postminart.org/athregeum/ (contemporary writing online journal)
Coma Press http://commapress.co.uk (Indie publisher)
Save Our Short Story http://www.theshortstory.org.uk/aboutus/ (provides database of competitions for short stories)
Spilling Ink Review http://spillinginkreview.com/ (contemporary writing online journal)
Unbound Press http://www.unboundpress.com (Indie publisher)
Other Genres Quoted
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (undated edition)
Furst, Alan. Kingdom of Shadows, Phoenix, 2001
Dark Voyage, Random House, 2006
McCarthy, Cormac.No Country For Old Men, Picador, 2006
Potter, Beatrix. The Tailor of Gloucester, Frederick Warne, undated Roth, Philip. The Human Stain Vintage, 2001.
Tokien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, Unwin Paperbacks, 3rd ed.1979.