Monday, September 26, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Schoolteachers love short stories, because a short story can be read in the time of an average teaching period, can be discussed and can be dissected in follow-up periods. Read two short stories and you’ve planned one class’s week of English lessons.

As this is true, I’m sure somebody lined you up when you were at school and told you about short stories. And I’m sure their spiel went something like this:-

There are two sorts of short story. There is the short story driven by plot and there is the short story driven by the observation of character. Go down the plot-driven path, and you have Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Somerset Maugham’s cynical anecdotes, the sting-in-the-tail of Guy de Maupassant’s La Parure (The Necklace) and the endless stings-in-the-tail of a volume of  O.Henry or Roald Dahl.  Go down the character-observation path and you have slices-of-life, ‘life’s enormous trivialities’ and ironic observations of character by Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson. Don’t look for neat beginning, middle and end in their stories. Look for revelation of character in everyday actions. Now class, what sort of short story is the one I just read with you?

As a teacherly generalisation, this one isn’t bad – so long as you haven’t opened a volume of stories published more recently than the 1950s.

But it has its limitations.

To begin with, close observation of character isn’t exclusive of a well-wrought plot (check out Ambrose Bierce’s point-of-death tale An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge).

To go on with, often the same writer is capable of writing different styles of short story. The trickiness of de Maupassant’s ending to La Parure is in no way indicative of the man’s whole work, much of which was slice-of-life and observational. Earlier this year I reviewed Craig Cliff’s excellent debut collection A Man Melting, and noted that the young New Zealand writer preferred observational character tales, but he could produce an honest-to-God sting-in-the-tail when he chose. The same was true of Graham Greene’s short stories.

Then there’s the fact that successful observational stories are as firmly structured and focused as stories that lead us on by the complexities of their plot. They are not formless and un-wrought. Nadine Gordimer is predominantly concerned with place and person rather than with the trickiness of plot;  but open any collection of her stories and note how each one ends exactly at the point where its irony will sink in most deeply.

The distinction between plot-driven story and character-observational story is not as rigid as the teacher generalisation suggests. Regrettably, too, the old generalisation has had the effect of suggesting to schoolkids that a well-wrought plot is unimportant or unnecessary or not as highbrow, and therefore not as prestigious, as the tales of Mansfield, Joyce etc. It is no defence of formulaic shock- surprise- or suspense-driven plots to note the great literary skill in many plot-dominated narratives.

Matters have moved on in the area of short stories, as in all types of literature, since the dichotomy of plot and observation was first established in teachers’ minds. We are aware of interesting experiments in short-story writing, like Charlotte Grimshaw’s two recent volumes Opportunity and Singularity, where the stories can be detached and appreciated as separate units, or read all together so that connections between them emerge and they become what their author once called “a novel with a large cast of characters”.

There have been more outré experiments in short-story writing than this, too, but there is one trend that causes me some difficulty.

Writing School advice often insists on discarding beginnings and endings and concentrating on middles. Don’t explain, allude. Don’t neatly tie off the action, leave it open-ended. Let cultural referents speak for themselves. Make the reader work a bit. Be opaque.

The result is many short stories where characters float weightlessly in a situation rather than in a plot, and there is no sense of development, let alone epiphany.

I think this approach once led to a fresh and stimulating sort of short-story. But it has now become the expected template for young writers. I am oppressed by tales which have some immediacy, but which simply do not tell me enough to know where their characters have been, where they are going or why I should care.

I feel no sense of completion when I put down such tales. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps I am supposed to see that life is detachable moments rather than ongoing story. But, little reactionary me, I still crave to be taken on a journey, not to see only a snapshot.

I have found a way of coping, however. I have learnt to read such stories as I read poetry - for their imagery and allusions rather than for their revelations or onward march.

It helps. But I still dive back regularly into my de Maupassant, Gordimer and Greene for relief.

1 comment:

  1. The shortness of short stories suggests a distillation, that with economy comes a piece of work packed with more power than an equivalent word count from the long stretch of a novel. The writer hasn't got the space to build depth of character but can compensate with the eventful.
    I like the description of the 'middle only' short story with its free-floating character(s) and tend to think that robbed of a plot the character loses their edge, subsisting outside time's coercion and contingency, while the writer fails to exploit a fundamental story feature which is character + event. The challenge is to build, in a short space of time, a relationship between both.