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That William Faulkner quote popped up recently in a promotional e-mail…the one about novelists being failed short story writers; short story writers being failed poets….made me wonder what sort of failure poets are?


The delights of a well told story mean that we can come back to it again and again with equal, and perhaps growing pleasure. Even, and perhaps especially, the short story works in this way, and remarkably, even the very short story can.

A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton (most recently published as the title story of a Turnpike Books selection) is a case in point.  Only four pages long, it’s a story I’ve come back to again and again, finding something new in it each time – perhaps I’m an inattentive reader – or refining my thoughts from a previous reading.  Weep Not My Wanton featured in Coppard’s very first collection, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, alongside Dusky Ruth – often quoted as being representative of his work, and Arabesque – The Mouse, one of his most sinister and searching sidelights on the human psyche, and another favourite of mine. Unaccountably, Coppard left Weep Not My Wanton out of his self-selected American collection, and I wish I’d discovered him in time to have asked why!

I’ve written about the story before on more than one occasion, but I haven’t stopped exploring it. The mystery, if that’s the right word, for me, has always been to explain why Coppard tagged on the last paragraph. It could, of course, be an error of judgement, but I doubt that. The paragraph provides a closing frame, returning the reader to the landscape that opened the story, in a lush description of Sack Down, where ‘air and light […] at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk’. The closing sentence is as gentle: ‘From the quiet hill, as the last skein of cocks was carted to the stack, you could hear dimly men’s voice’s and the rattle of their gear.’

What has passed between what I think of as the two water-coloured frames of English landscape, is a simple, but brutal story. Into that landscape walks an itinerant labouring family. The father is ‘slightly drunk’ and as they walk he unmercifully berates, and beats, the ‘tiny figure’ of his son. The cause of this prolonged assault is a lost sixpence, but, just before that closing paragraph of landscape, a startling truth is revealed. The sixpence is not lost, but withheld by the boy, to be given to the mother while the father is distracted.

That father is a complex figure, far more complex than four pages of story might be thought to require. Drunk, but wearing ‘two bright medals’, which, the author tells us, in a phrase that seems to push through the detached narrative of the third person and speak intimately to us, were ‘presumably for valour’. This is an important phrase. That ‘presumably’ raises the question of what the medals were for, and prepares us for another phrase, later, in which we are told that he has fallen ‘from the heroic standard’. Readers in 1921, and perhaps since, would know that ‘for valour’ is what it says on the Victoria Cross, the highest award, for valour, that can be made to a serving soldier of the British Army. This bullying father is not quite what he seems.

That ‘tiny figure’ of the son is not what he seems either. He is described at length early in the story and the description is shot through with elements that show he is in disguise: ‘a man’s cap’, a ‘sailor’s jacket’, ‘a pair of women’s button boots.’ Appearances are deceptive throughout this story. The mother, who watches the abuse of her son without seeming to do anything about it, is equally misleading: ‘she seemed to have no desire to shield the boy’. ‘She did not seem to notice them.’ But, at what might seem  to be the climax of the father’s assault, she seems to need to go behind a bush and hands over to him the babe, whom she has been carrying.

Now we see another side of him, as he cooes to and carries the child. The boy falls back, and slips the sixpence to his mother when she reappears. The jolt of this action, on first reading, is immense, and the scales fall from our eyes. The heroism and endurance of the boy, and the cleverness of the mother, and the tragedy of the whole situation are all, instantly revealed. And perhaps, all that seeming, and being dressed in somebody else’s clothes is eclipsed.

There is something else going on in this story. ‘At the crown of the hill’ at a ‘roadside barn’ young boars are being gelded. Their ‘sounds of anguish’ are not illusory. Neither is the singing of the lark, ‘rioting above’. A gypsy man among the workers comments on the father’s beating of the boy – ‘ ‘Selp me, father, that’s a good ‘un, wallop his trousers!’ But it isn’t the trousers, and besides, the father ignores all this. But the pigs, at the end of the story are really ‘bloody and subdued’.

I think a point is being made here, about what is seen and not seen, and what is paid attention to and what is ignored, and how what is real can be misrepresented. And at the very beginning of the story, Coppard has alerted us to the possibility of something very like that, for that luscious opening description, of the peaceful English countryside, with its ‘ointment’ and ‘milk’ is, he quite explicitly tells us, ‘a notion the down might give..[  to  ]…some happy victim of romance’. This brings the story down to being, not about the father and his situation, nor even about the England across which he tramps, but about us, the readers, and what we are capable of seeing, through, and in the stories we are told.

If you’d like to read more about Coppard, about the tales, and the themes that run through them, my collection of essays is available online for Kindle, or as a softback, by clicking on the image, or here.

So the BBC had their man interview Tom Hanks yesterday, about his new collection of Short Stories (power to the man!)…but asked him how he felt about becoming ‘ a novelist’. Shades of Muhammed Ali – what’s my name? – but no blows rained sadly.

Today they topped it off with a decent short story on Radio 4 ….and you’ve guessed it….. ‘by the novelist…’

When will these people learn?






Here’s a date for those of you in or near Carlisle, England: At Darren Harper’s Phil and Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Friday, 3rd November 7.00pm-8.30  English Short Stories between the Wars… a talk by Me (with help from BHD), looking at A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and others. (£4.50 members, £6 non-members). Book through website

There was a wicked little device used in the Middle Ages (and later), to cripple cavalry horses.  I think it was called a caltrop. Thrown onto the ground it was so constructed as to fall always sharp side up. A three dimensional piece, you might imagine it as having a triangular base, from which three other triangles rise to that upward pointing sharpie.

The triangle as a metaphor for story – characters at the point, relationships along the lines, is a two dimensional object, but we could add that third dimension to it as well. That would be the narrator. But where is the author? Where is the reader (or listener, if the story is being told)?

Why not come along on Thursday 5th October to Mike Smith’s Facets of Fiction Workshop at Carlisle Library (10.00am-12.00 noon) and join in an exploration of this and other triangular conundrums about how we write short stories, and what we think they might be.  Tickets are available via the link, here.

Writers in the Carlisle (England) area interested in meeting up for an informal chat might like to know that the next session at Cakes and Ale cafe behind Bookcase on Castle Street, will be on Wednesday January 20th, between 12.30 and 2.30 pm. No performance, not a workshop, not a reading, just the chance to meet up with fellow writers and chew the fat, gristle, bones and meat of anything that needs chewing, and to shoot the breeze, the messenger (sic), the pianist – hope you get that one – and the rapids, but not the fellow-writers! Hope to see you there!IMG_7421

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriters in the Carlisle (Cumbria) area looking for the chance to chat about their work, or what they are reading, to get feedback or just shoot the breeze, have a new drop-in venue to try out. Members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop have undertaken to be available every first and third Wednesday of the month (12.30-2.30pm) at the new Cakes & Ale cafe on Castle Street Carlisle. There’s no fee, no format, and no agendas: but the F of F writers will make sure that there will be someone on hand to talk with, read to, or simply have a coffee with – the rest, as they say, is future. Why not come along and see what we can make of it? The first event is on November 18th, with follow up dates set for 2nd and 16th December….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATT cover2012 066OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I couldn’t sleep, what with the heat, so, as you do, I started to list, not my favourite ten short stories, but ten of my favourite short stories:

Weep Not My Wanton

A Canary For One

A Rider in the Sky

The Fall

The Dead

Arabesque – The Mouse

The Little Farm

Fitter’s Night

The Misfits

The Gift of the Magi

A Christmas Carol

Monsieur Oufle

Blondeau The Cobbler


You expect me to keep count as well?

You want the authors? A.E.Coppard, Ernest Hemingway,Ambrose Bierce,V.S.Pritchett,James Joyce,Coppard again,H.E.Bates,Arthur Miller (twice),O Henry,Charles Dickens,Abbe Bourdelot,Bonaventure des Perriers,


And there was Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle too, should have been in that first ten, not to mention some stories by friends of mine…Kurt Tidmore’s Prairie Song for example, and Hugh Thomnpson’s The Italian Fisherman, and Marilyn Messenger’s unfinished story (she knows which one I mean), and nearly all of Vivien Jones’ Perfect Ten collection, and one from her White Poppies collection, and a Daphne Du Maurier, and D.H.Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums…..


And then the question, why is it that the women writers come in so far down the list, and so few? And then, the question, why are there no Jewish Writers in there (for all I know, Miller might have been Jewish, and so might others…I don’t enquire into that sort of thing), and what about redheads, or people who are left handed (like me), or adopted (like me), or apparently heterosexual (like me)? Or who don’t have beards? And does it matter anyway? If I listed my favourite poems, one of Josephine Dickinson’s would come in the first half dozen (Instead of Time), and if novels, Isoabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party would be there with Silas Marner.


If I’ve read all of Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories, and two collections of Alice Monro’s, and one of Miranda July’s, and yet none of their’s appear in my over-stuffed top ten, does it tell you anything about them, or anything about me?   And does the fact that my two Coppard entries are from over two hundred stories, and my two Miller’s are from sixteen? From my own several hundred attempts I think four stand out, and one of them I’m still post-creatively infatuated with! And there’s another ought to be in there, but…. Why are there no African stories, or South American, or Asian ones? Why are there none from Wigton, or Wigtown for that matter? Why none from China? How many have you read from my home town, by the way?


And I sort of know that if push came to shove, I’d rescue – desert island disc style – two from the waves (Weep Not My Wanton and The Little Farm – I think…..)


And what about all the ones I have forgotten, for the moment, or really forgotten? How many of them, if remembered, would spring into that top ten? And in fact, isn’t the ten of your top favourite anythings of anytime, just a snapshot of where you are, and when, at that place, and that moment?

(and Christine Howe’s Dancing With Johnny)…oh, yes, and ……

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn The Language of Fiction, which treats almost exclusively of novels, David Lodge touches on the concept of single words ‘standing behind’ the whole story. I’ve written previously about the exercise of reducing a short story progressively down through the typical ‘word-max’ limits of contemporary competitions, until we arrive at a single sentence, a phrase,or even a single word.

The idea that one word might encapsulate an entire story is not that odd. I’m sure the most common question asked about stories by readers, before they have read, but when they have become aware of any individual story is ‘what’s it about?’, and in striving to answer that question it is often a single word that we are trying to supply. We might reply with a sentence, a phrase, or a group of words. ‘It’s about this and that and the other’, but whenever we put a group of words into a pot we instinctively reach for a label for the pot itself, and we’re back to a single word.

Which thought edges me into the area I wanted to go: is there a similar possibility when describing the work in general of an author? D.H.Lawrence is the first name that springs to mind, for I have heard it said that he wrote the same novel over and again, as if trying to articulate some specific concern that was central to him as an individual. Other writers too echo earlier works in their later ones. Some are commercial genres, repeated because they are ‘successful’. But others are repetitions that refine or explore a single theme: the one that drives the author to be an author, instead of getting on with a sensible and socially useful life.

All this might be an interesting exploration when applied to the writers we encounter out in the world, but is it a riskier venture when we start asking the same question of ourselves? What do we write about? And do we repeatedly write about it? And the string of questions unravels from there. Why, and what good does it do us, and what harm, and can we move on from it without answering the questions ‘successfully’, and what happens to us after we have, or haven’t?

Then the question raises its head about whether or not it is in fact a good idea to know about ourselves what we idly seek to find out about the writers that we read. Maybe we’re better just, mole like, burrowing into whatever theme it is that stands behind our writing, risking the mole-catcher’s trap, throwing up our molehills of stories (on the pristine lawns of Great Literature – ‘especially great literature’, you might recall, bored John Berryman).

Or maybe we don’t have a single word standing behind all we have written. Maybe we’re casting our net wide – to change metaphors – trawling the seas of possible experience for something interesting. Maybe our writing is a search for meaning, not for the expression of a meaning that we already have. But even if that were the case, it might be that some outsider, reader, coming along, would put a finger on the tender spot of what unifies our writings, and if they did, would we want to know?

The question lurking behind this little musing must be the one I’m asking about why I do it – the writing?APennySpitfire-frontcover


WRITING DAYS – run on Saturdays from 10 – 4.00.

Focussing on specific elements of writing technique.

Students have time to write during the workshop.

Drinks and light lunch provided.


Please contact Mike Smith 

for course dates and further information

Held throughout the year in Curthwaite near Wigton at a cosy Cumbrian cottage. The courses are held in the 200 year old restored ‘Stock Room’.

October 12th 2013

Narrative Voice – Workshopping the who-tells-what-about-whom-and-to- whom of stories! Where does the narrator sit (or stand, or hover) in relation to the reader (and the characters)? What tone of voice does he (or she, or it) use?

November 2nd 2013

Dialogue – Exploring to make your characters ‘seem’ to talk to each other (when we all know that really they are passing vital information to the reader)

December 7th 2013

Using Research – Exercises in using what you know (and what you don’t know) to provide credibility (and authenticity?) to your stories.





Would you like to come and join

a small group of people who enjoy meeting

to discuss their work?

Taught by writer and poet Mike Smith.


FACETS OF FICTION – two hour workshops.

Run fortnightly for students working

on texts that they have prepared in advance.

I’m recruiting for a fresh series of 5

Facets of Fiction fortnightly workshops

to run Thursdays 1.30pm-3.30pm

5 places available


for costs and further information

thatswhatyagetA danger for writers, and especially for those who hit their stride, is that they may become pastiches of themselves. Their later works ape what they perceive as having been successful in their earlier ones.

Just as second rate pop groups will churn out progressively watered down versions of their first hit, so writers can end up writing the same stories over and over again. Not only second rate ones either. D.H.Lawrence has been accused of something very similar with his novels, though not, curiously, with his short stories.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, may be a good slogan for encouraging the husbanding of scarce resources, but it can’t do much for exploration and originality. There may be a natural tendency to stick with themes that fascinate us, and on which we don’t feel we have had the last word yet, or with styles that just sound right to us, but if commecrcial success kicks in, I imagine, we perhaps get into a situation that has nothing to do with what styles we like, or what themes we want to write about.

Branded authors, like other branded goods, need an identity, and a consistency. Artists, on the other hand, might not. Practitioners of any art form though, are liable to find themselves having to make the choice of which way to go: towards being a recognisable brand, or towards continued originality, and exploration. Perhaps the chosen route depends on what the ‘art’ is perceived as being for. If we’re writing to find out something about ourselves in relation to the art, to discover if we can make it ‘work’, whatever that means, maybe we keep on exploring its boundaries. This might explain why some writers appear to ‘go off the boil’ when in fact they’re busily exploring areas that we as readers don’t want to follow them into.

Writers who stick with what their readers, rather than what they themselves, are interested in, might find that they get stuck in a gold-lined rut, which like any other rut, will suit some, and not others.

One of the curious anomalies I find is in whether we value our own assessments of our work, or those of other people. In a sense, success is in the achievement of the goal, which might be to write in a particular way. The public acclaim that successful writers experience is merely the recognition of that success. And what if that acclaim is misplaced, as often seems to be the case, as writers fall away from public consciousness over the years? Having worked as a bookseller for a quarter of a century, I would testify to a lot of badly written books, and even of bad books, selling well, and of many very good ones remaining in obscurity.