Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Between Stops

I was heartened recently to come across an article by Nabokov in which he spoke up for short stories. Thank goodness, I thought. Now I can own up to my private passion, and if anyone pours scorn I have the author of Lolita in my corner. But when did the short story become such a guilty pleasure? While the novel may date back a thousand years (The Tale of Genji – discuss), the short story is as old as fire. Why should it need defending?

Perhaps because it’s so old and familiar a form. Short stories often have the smack of wood smoke, of a yarn told intimately at hearthside or from a bar stool – in contrast with the high, declamatory idiom of many novels. Somewhere along the way from cave to drawing room, people started to confuse questions of high and low art with the quite different matter of quality and worth. As the Victorian middle class began to aspire to genteel literary tastes, the short story got thrown in among the penny dreadfuls. People continued to enjoy short stories. They just didn’t want to admit it.

And yet look at the short story’s champions. Dickens, Kipling, Mansfield, James, Hemingway, Salinger, Borges. I could go on and on. Plenty of literary giants haven’t shared the popular lack of respect for the form.

Graham Greene, for example. He said that, while a novelist needed to feel his or her way through a story, the short story writer could perceive the whole shape of the work before they began. Which is true, as far as it goes, but not every short story is a polished epicule in fractal miniature. The most interesting ones defy all sense of morphe and give us something nearer to real life: an elusive twist of truth without a definite end. So Steinbeck can write of haunted chewing gum, Lawrence of a family’s dark secrets revealed down a drainpipe. People can wake up as cockroaches. Repressed feelings manifest as overcoats, pocket watches, cleaning products and pet ferrets in ways that would blow Freud’s bow tie clean off.

Arguably the highest goal of the literary art is to represent things that have multiple meanings at once. Frankenstein’s creature – is he Victor’s id? His child? A real monster? An imagined terror? A philosophical question? Answer: all of the above. This is hard for a novel to pull off, especially these days as the entire orbit of the novel is being tugged off course by the mass market’s assumption that a novel, like a movie, is supposed to be straightforwardly a recounting of events. But short stories are free to be surreal, shapeless, irrational. When a writer takes on a short story, they get to kick off their shoes and go wherever the material takes them.

Polti said there are only thirty-six dramatic situations. Hollywood has supposedly boiled that down to just seven plots. A horrible future of reductive storytelling would await us, if not for short stories. The short story writer, like the poet, doesn’t have to give a fig for plots and dramatic situations. Story arcs can twist like Möbius strips, splice into something different with no more sense than a dream. Redemption? Closure? Put a coin in the swear box, please. This is fiction in its purest form.

Still, we admire artifice in a work. We look for the connective structure. We like to perceive a shape. In a collection of short stories, though, it is the whole that has the shape. It’s only when we step back that we can see the common themes being explored. The individual stories are free to dart away from definite analysis. Hence Between Stops, which is not just the time we have to while away but the mental space between anchors of logic. What will you discover on these journeys? The answer for each reader is a different one – and there’s the beauty of the form.


  1. And while I'm on the subject of short stories, here's a deliciously creepy little gem by David Bailey that can hold its head up alongside the best of John Collier:


  2. We've been thoroughly enjoying these excellent readings of the five stories shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award - "Bad Dreams" is my favorite so far.


    1. Thanks, Sandy. I'm always on the lookout for something to listen to during gym workouts. More podcasts mean more exercise :)