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A good journalist never reveals his sources, they say, and the bad ones certainly don’t! But fiction writers, poets and playwrights are always getting asked, where do you find ’em?
And there isn’t always a simple answer, in my experience. With my latest offering to CUT, though, (Contributory Culpability) I can throw a little light… A walk on an abandoned railway track in the north east of England threw up an old guy in an oil stained cap, who told me a story about the railway we were standing on, and how, with the last passenger train of the day, the engineer (or driver) and the fireman, would leave the train simmering at the nearby halt while they popped into the pub for a last pint. (I’m reminded that in my home town, where there were miles of Brewery Railways, a man used to wander the site, officially, offering pints from a small barrel -firkin perhaps? – to all and sundry, even those operating machinery!) I transposed my oil-stained cap man’s story to West Cumbria, changed trains and added some consequences…. but did I do it right? Only the reader can tell.
Here’s a link to the story on CUTalongstory: MY ebook entitled Contributory Culpability
BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below! Hecho a Mano, by the way, means – roughly translated – a hand job!
You’ll often hear it said that ‘people-watching’ is an endless fascination. Sit in a cafe, or on a platform, or even just out in the street – there’s a sort of plinth outside a city centre clothing store towards the top end of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street that I’ve spent some time watching from, and, I think, being watched. I even wrote about it in a Kowalski story.
And that’s unusual, because however fascinating it is to people watch, what you see rarely translates into what we might call a short story. That isn’t to say stories don’t spring out of the details of such observations – we might even note them down in notebooks and use them later…the practice that H.E.Bates called ‘compiling’, and castigated A.E.Coppard for using!
But it’s rare, in my experience to get a whole story played out before your (astonished) gaze. It’s turning points we’re on the look out for, and starting points, and endpoints. Somebody ending a conversation and walking away…somebody stepping up and beginning one…somebody examining a scrap of paper – we can’t quite make out what it is – and deciding to discard it in the waste bin.
V.S.Pritchett wrote that short stories make ‘explicit’ what real life only implies. Yet many stories seem to describe, in detail, tedious sequences of events, intricate foibles of character, forensic examinations of place, that not only don’t make explicit, but seem not to imply anything either.
Perhaps the readers who enjoy stories like this are really people-watching in the comfort of their own armchairs, instead of on the bum-freezing seats of the inner cities. Reading, perhaps, to find stories that the authors of the texts they are reading haven’t even considered, rather than to find out, what the those authors might be trying to tell them..
Of course it might be that such stories are merely too subtle, or too finely wrought for someone like me to perceive. But if they aren’t, then it might be a similar conundrum to that in the art world, of the splash of paint, or the pile of bricks? Who creates the Art? The splashers and pilers, or the people who look at them and imagine. (We know who has to pay, and who gets the money).
To what extent does our writing have to communicate something to someone? Anything to anyone? To what extent does a failure to do so reflect on the writer, and on the reader? To what extent must we be prepared to accept that some people are too stupid, lazy or ignorant to be successful readers of our stories, or, and it pains me, we to be their writers?
I’ve just been reading the terms and conditions for a short story competition. Should I tell you its name? It carries the logos of various Arts organisations and is glowingly endorsed by a well known media celeb and purveyor of language.
There are no prizes, but the winner gets an award (endorsed by those organisations) and twenty or so runners up get published alongside it. But what does the writer have to pledge to win this prestigious approbation? Perpetual, exclusive rights to everything you can think of (and clauses including that which hasn’t yet been thought of), without remuneration, I should add, including the right to hack, mutilate and transform the piece – into whatever those organisations want it to be….
Is it really worth it? The piece you submit will have to be (at least according to their lights) pretty good….and you won’t get anything except the kudos, ever; and you might have to suffer the indignity of being associated with an agenda quite at odds with any espoused by your original text…a few words changed, even only the word orders, can subvert many a story.
Perhaps what made it so pungent for me, was that I had been reading Dickens’ letters (in the single volume edition edited by Jenny Hartley and published in 2012), including several about his outrage at the way American publishers were pirating the works of English (and other) writers during his lifetime. Dickens was a long time campaigner for copyright protection. I wonder how he would have viewed these terms and conditions? At least no one has to involuntarily accept them, but only might be seduced by the possibility of being associated with the names of those offering them.
.Cent magazine has one too……(a story by BHD ….hasn’t he been busy…sheesh!)
Here’s a Christmassy sort of story from BHD, along with BHDandMe’s very best wishes for the festive season: have a cool Yule!
A Winter Tale
Rav had watched through the window of his shop all morning, putting down his book every few paragraphs, and staring across the road. It was a beautiful day. The sun was blazing down, making the snow and ice sparkle like Christmas decorations. Curves of frost stuck to the corners of the glass, like the ones he’d sprayed on from a can in previous years.
He was watching pedestrians come round the corner from Market Street into Bank Street. It was as they made the turn they slipped, and as each one did so, Rav felt his muscles tighten, as if he were the one who might be about to fall. Of course, they didn’t all fall. Most of them just wobbled, threw out an arm to one side, two arms, one to either side, and righted themselves, and his muscles would relax again; but every now then one would go down, and Rav’s muscles would contract, and he’d grit his teeth, almost feeling the impact as they hit the pavement.
He had watched four already this morning fail to make the turn, crashing down onto their sides, feet briefly showing above the snow, shopping bags spilling their contents. People came to help them of course, seemingly able to run across the very ice that they had slipped on. They had helped them to their feet, picked up their fallen shopping, repacked their bags, and sent them on their way. At least no-one had been seriously injured yet, although the day before, when it had not been sunny and the snow had still been falling, an ambulance had been called to take one victim away.
They really ought to get these pavements sorted out, Rav said.
I know, Bev said, examining her nails.
Rav was picturing the shovel they kept at the back of the shop. Not really a shovel, more of a scoop. They used it for the ornamental gravels. But it was made of metal, and was the size of one of those old fashioned shovels you’d use for coal. If you got down to it, and put a bit of shoulder behind it, you could quite well clear a few yards of pavement without too much trouble.
In fact the pavements had been cleared already, technically. The council workers had been around and had shovelled a person wide gully through the snow down the centre line, with offshoots to one side where there were shop doorways, and the other where there were pedestrian crossings. But since then there had been a slight thaw, and melt-water had run out from the piles of snow and had frozen again, leaving a thin and very slippery coating of ice.
I should go across and clear it, he said. Obviously, it was that patch on the corner that was causing all the problems. People were managing perfectly well on the straight. It was when they came to change direction that they experienced difficulties.
It’s not your pavement, Bev said, looking up.
That was true. It was the pavement outside the sports shop. Quite clearly so. Anybody could see that. Rav could see it; but he could also see the people falling over on it.
But I can see it, Bev, he said. In fact he doubted whether his motives were entirely altruistic. The tension of watching, his heart thumping in his chest as people made the perilous crossing around the sports shop corner out of Market Street was doing him no good. He wondered if perhaps it was for his own benefit that he felt the need to take responsibility.
An old lady jerked and jolted around the corner, making him wince. She steadied again and walked on safely. Rav blew out a long breath and sucked in another.
I cannot take much more of this, he said.
Don’t look, Bev suggested, peering at her nails again.
Don’t look? How can I not look, when I know it is going on outside my own front door?
I bet they’re not looking at the sports shop, Bev said, prodding carefully at a cuticle.
That was true too. She was undoubtedly right. In the sports shop they would not be looking. They would be watching their large television screens, upon which they showed endless films of people climbing mountains, and surfing, and hang gliding, and sliding down steep slopes on toboggans and skis, in the snow and ice. Why would they want to look out of their window? Besides, the sun did not favour them the way it favoured Rav, when it came to looking out.
Perhaps, he reasoned, if they did look out, and saw what was going on they too would want to do something about it. He weighed up the situation. To go over there and to tell them what was happening would be presumptuous. It would imply that he believed there was a fault on their part. They would be either insulted or embarrassed, and he had no wish to cause either embarrassment or offence. Yet, to carry over the small shovel and to begin clearing the pavement under their very noses would be an equal insult, an equal embarrassment.
What if, seeing him work, they came to a sudden realisation of the situation, and of their failure to react to it? Mortification. He would be giving them no chance to rehabilitate the situation. Every time thereafter that he saw one of them unlocking the shutters in the early morning or locking them up again at night or passing on the street on some errand they would feel an unspoken reproach that he did not bear towards them, yet which he could not mention, as that would in itself imply that he had cause to.
Yet, he thought, as another spasm of splaying arms attracted his attention, there was an accident waiting to happen, an accident that would happen outside their shop, and within sight of his own. A further thought occurred. People would say of him, Rav, that he had stood and watched and done nothing. They would be thinking that he had watched in the hope of seeing someone fall, much as people are said to watch car racing in the hope of seeing a crash. What sort of person would that make him?
Resolve hardened in him, and he turned away from the window.
Bev, who like Rav, thought more than she spoke, had the little shovel in her hand already and offered it to him.
I have a better idea, he said, waving a finger at her, one that will save all embarrassments.
He had been reading The Wooden Horse, a wartime escape story, in which a secret tunnel was dug, out under the wire of a prison camp.
I am going out for a moment, he said, and he helped himself to a five-pound note from the till.
Rav emptied his trouser pockets into his jacket, and made sure he had the little penknife with him. Then he set off at a careful pace, across the road, past the sports shop and taking great care at the corner, into Market Street.
Good deeds, he believed, should be done unostentatiously. The merits within them were lessened, he thought, by the discomforts they brought to others, who might have perfectly understandable reasons for their own inactions. He would clear away the ice and the people in the sports shop would not even know it had been done.
He bought two small bags of salt from the mini-market on Market Street, pierced them with the penknife, stuffed one, slit down, into each of his trouser pockets and set off back towards Bank Street. In the book the escapees had been faced with the problem of what to do with the soil that they had dug out of their tunnels. Clearly they could not leave piles of it lying around for the guards to see. So, they had distributed it all over the sports ground at the camp, by dribbling it from the pockets of their trousers.
Rav was thinking with pleasure of this when he arrived at the corner and realised that he had not cut holes in his pockets through which to dribble his ice-busting salt. Perhaps that was why, when he reached the corner, he was struggling with both hands in his trouser pockets. The people in the sports shop saw him wobble briefly and then disappear from view below the level of the window-sill.
Ay up, mate. You all right?
Yes, thank you. I am fine, Rav said, looking up at the sports shop manager.
You’ve dropped something, the man said, bending down beside him. The two bags, from which the salt dribbled slowly, had slipped out onto the ice. They’ve split, the man said, trying to stop the flow.
Salt, Rav said, fearing the man might think it something worse.
We could do with some of that out here, the man said.
I finally worked my way through the two volumes of Philip Hensher’s The Penguin Book of the British Short Story.
Time for the carping to begin then. Of course, Philip Hensher is completely at liberty to pick whichever stories he wants in his anthology, and I really salute him for putting together an interesting and engaging selection, not to mention a series of brief biographical notes that are as entertaining – more so in several cases – than some of the stories.
I confess I baulked at a few of them. The Kipling I ploughed through, but found hard going. One or two others I just couldn’t make it to the end of. I missed H.E.Bates. Though I have an axe to grind against him for his slighting of Coppard, it doesn’t blind me to the fact that he was a great writer of short stories, and a thoughtful one, and a knowledgeable one as well. Hensher tells us why he was left out – the editor’s ‘growing dread’ of his stories. More to the point he was a writer of great short stories.
For me, The Little Farm, is one of the best stories written by any English short story writer I have come across, with The Mill, and The Station not far behind.
But one of the points worth making, having read a collection like this one, is that the stories that do and don’t appeal to us are as much to do with where we are, and where we’ve come from, and where we think we’re going (as opposed, perhaps to where we actually are going) as to do with the way they have been written. Short stories aren’t some monolith that we can walk around, and define the edges of and rap our knuckles against: they are not set in stone, but in our own perceptions and awarenesses, a nebulous cloud meeting the equally nebulous cloud of the author’s insights and communicative abilities. We might read the same words as each other, but I doubt we hear the same voices, or feel the same emotional buttons being pressed.
That’s why the only real carp I have – apart from a couple of goldfish that the cat has left for the heron – is not with Hensher, who has done his thing commendably, but with Penguin, who have both limited the two volumes, and aggrandized them, and cleverly so, by the use of two words, or rather, of a single word, twice.
‘The Penguin Book of’ makes it not one among many, as ‘A Penguin book’ would have suggested – leaving the door open for some alternative anthologies. ‘The British Short Story’, is too grand a claim. This is ‘A’ book of ‘Some’ short stories, the majority of which have some connection, however obviously tenuous, with what some people think of as Britain.
It would be interesting to know, how many of the authors included would think of themselves as British, and be happy to be categorised in that way. It would be interesting to know how many of them would be thought of as British by others (others who do, and don’t think of themselves as British included). It would also be interesting to know what it is about the stories, as opposed to the authors, that encapsulates some Britishness.
I’ve been interested in trying to find what Lessing called ‘the steadily flowing stream in English writing,’ but it’s hard to tell it apart from other clear, flowing waters. Hensher pays some attention to these conundrums, and comes up with the same sort of flummoxed uncertainties in the case of British, I think, that most of us are prone to. Maybe Penguin could have done away, not only with its ‘the’s, but with the Britishness too…and just have produced a book of ‘stories that somebody we asked to edit it thinks are good.’ He could still have tagged them to Britishness – holidays, read about it somewhere, seen it on TV, heard it mentioned…He still wouldn’t have had to include H.E.Bates.
The General Introduction, by the way, is a really thought provoking read – in relation to Britishness, and Blockheadedness (what Doctor Johnson said we must be suffering from if we wrote for any other reason than money), and un-blockheadeness, and competitions, and so on. It might be the singer, not the song, but where stories are concerned, we’re the ones who are singing from the score of the printed page, so it might well be the story, not the storyteller….And you are almost certain to find some that you will be think of as gems in there, among the authors, among the stories.
I had not heard of this Swedish writer, whose work appears in volume 19 of the 20 volume set. He was born in 1858, but the story, of an elderly couple, living beyond a Peat Bog, and on the far side of the lake, deep in a wood, could have been written any time since antiquity. There was an almost medieval feel to it, and a distinct whiff of the supernatural. It was such an archetypal tale that I repeatedly got the feeling that I had read it before, or heard echoes of it.
It’s one of those stories, like this blog, in which not much happens – but stories, long or short, are not always about events. The elderly couple live in peaceful seclusion leading a simple life. Their children have left, but they trade with the local village, and live off the bounty of the woodland and the lake. Eventually though, the husband, Jacob, falls ill, and as Martina nurses him they slide into poverty. Martina cannot manage to provide enough fodder for their cow, which sickens and dies. She is reduced to begging. At first neighbours are only too willing to help, but as Jacob’s illness persists they become less co-operative.
Finally the bedridden Jacob recognises that the day of his death has arrived, and persuades Martina to carry him out to their punt, place him upon it, and to push the boat out into the waters of the lake. When the punt floats back to the shore Jacob is no longer aboard. His body is found several days later.
What is the eponymous secret? It is that ‘everyone understood that that which had happened should be kept secret, for it was the secret of the wood, and Martina had not really known what she was doing when she helped Jacob to his death’.
This revelation came as a surprise to me; partly because I had expected the secret to be something magical. Gustaf had put the idea into my head that the woods were a magical place, and that Jacob’s wife was fey. The more so it surprised me though, for the issue of assisted dying, and society’s response to it, seems such a modern, contemporary issue to be found in a story that is otherwise so apparently timeless.
Of course, it may be academic to search for the correct label. Labels aren’t that important are they? Except that they are; and when you have two labels that stand close to each other – two labels that draw a nice distinction, to give a word its earlier meaning – the difference becomes even more important. A novel is a different thing to a novella. The latter isn’t simply a shortened version of the former. If it were, we wouldn’t need the term at all, we could simply say, ‘a short novel’.
The novella might, in fact, be something not at all connected with the novel; something more like a short story – but longer.
The distinction may be something to do with the type of story it is. Sometimes, because there are sub-plots and side-plots and little groups of characters that get on with their own stories alongside the main one, I think that A Penny Spitfire might be (at 50,000 words) a short novel. Set in a single location and revolving around a single incident, with quite a distinct turning point (the ‘wendepunkt’ of a traditional novella) it might equally be a novella.
I can live with the uncertainty, and I’m sure you can! But there are similar uncertainties, it seems to me, about how we might describe different types of short story. They must overlap with both novels and with novellas. Certainly I’ve seen references to short stories of up to 35,000 words. I can imagine a novel of that length – and I’ve seen novella competitions with max word-counts of 22,000 words.
Are there ways of describing pieces of fiction other than with these rather vague labels? Would it be helpful if there were? In poetry we have a whole series of formal forms: sonnet; pantoum; ballad; villanelle et al! (You don’t see many ‘al’s these days). These labels are useful – giving us a shape to aim for when we try writing one; giving us a shape to diverge from when we want to write in echo of one, or to avoid entirely! Would a similar series of labels help us to think about, and talk about, and write short stories? Curiously H.G.Wells described his ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ as a ‘pantoum’. The pantoum is a very definite poetic form, and Well’s story (expanded in his own screenplay as a movie starring Roland Young) has some elements of its circularity, but does the label fit the prose form? Does it help us read it? Approach and understand it?
There are of course, the genres. Mostly for longer fiction, but also in films, we categorise by content, rather than form: RomCom, Chickflic, noir, horror, shlock-horror and so on. They give us a clue to what stories are about, rather than what they are like? The original genres were broader brushstrokes: comic; tragic. And those two are still fundamentally useful, separately or as a pair. There were distinctions of style, implying content too: epic; lyric.
The short story, or tale, as A.E.Coppard insisted on calling it, is of ancient provencance. Fables, myths, folk and fairy tales, and anecdotes are all fore-runners of the short story. All, to our modern way of thinking, are lesser forms: lesser than the short story, less than the novel. That lessness, I suspect, is because they were not originally written down. The short story is lifted into respectability by the fact that it is. Simply, that’s because you can’t write one down unless you’ve been taught to write, and you can’t read one until you’ve been taught to read.
But I still haven’t answered my own question: that of how we might label short stories, written or oral, or aural, to get a clearer idea of what different types of them there are, or might be. I think they might be distinguished by their forms, like poems, rather than by their content, as are novels, and that means looking at what the possible forms might be. The basic elements of short story forms I think of as ‘endings’, ‘ambience’, and ‘narrator’. Each of these three has several types – mirrors, hoops, and circles, I have suggested, among others, for the endings. The ambience could be one of a number of moods, and of moods that either deepen, lessen, or morph into other moods. The narrators will be one of those first, second or third persons, but will also be of ‘them’ or ‘us’ in relation to the characters in the story, and the listeners to it, or readers of it.
These elements could be said to belong to longer stories too, to novels and novellas, and that’s true, yet, one of the three, the ‘endings’ is far more important to short story than to any other fiction form, so that when push comes to shove, I would look to that one alone as being the key element by which to categorise different types of short story.
So, I might look for a Chekhovian ending; or a Biercian one; or a Maupassantian, as well as for my hoops and mirrors etc.
What would it mean for the short story if we could talk, and think about it in this way? What does it mean for poetry that we can think of it like that? Sonnet? Pantoum? Villanelle? Free-Verse? It seems to me that what you think you are doing will influence the way you are doing it, and what sort of story you think you ar e writing will affect the writing. Having some idea of what sort of stories there are to write should help that process. Maybe the question is more use than the answer, or rather, the possible answers might be of most use to those who formulate them, in light of which idea, I’ll leave the answers to you! Seasonal Greeting from BHDandMe.