Monthly Archives: November 2015

All short stories are shit

So, you couldn’t find the time or the inclination or the inspiration to write a novel?

So you decided to write a short story.

And it’s the story of a man or a woman who are already someplace (because you don’t have time for back story) and they meet someone and some life-changing event happens to them and the story ends with the line (in subtext at least) that nothing will ever be the same again.

And if it’s literary – in other words nothing much really happens except the protagonist is full of angst – then you show it to your writer friends and/or put it forward for competitions or magazines with small readership.

If it’s commercial – in other words vaguely understandable without lengthy debate or a session in therapy – then you show it to your non-writer friends and/or send it off to ‘women’s magazines’.

I never wanted to write short stories.  I wanted to write novels (still do/have done). But, thanks to less than a term at Birkbeck studying for an MA I have now written some short stories.  Whether they are any good is a question not answerable by me, particularly as part of this current rant.

I’ve also been forced (largely by myself of course, having signed up for the experience) to read lots and lots of other people’s shorts.

Here’s the thing:

Some of them are actually quite good.

I was watching Strictly Come Dancing this week.  Don’t judge!  This year’s participant from the Eastenders cast was performing her first waltz.  ‘Looks easy don’t it?’ she said, ‘Except it aint; it’s bloody hard” (or something like that).

This is the first thing to note.  In a novel of a hundred thousand words or so, the odd typo or poor sentence or bad metaphor can be forgiven or overlooked.  But in a story of a few thousand words every one counts.  Which is quite annoying.  ‘Looks easy, don’t it.  Well it bloody well aint’.

The next thing to note is that the single play record is no better or worse off because of the L.P.  And the sketch show can exist in a world alongside sit-coms and comedic feature films.  For that matter, five-a-side football and twenty-twenty cricket are just ‘other forms’ of the nation’s beloved games.

So, suffice to say, I was being a bit of a prat in not embracing the short story.  Particularly as I have loved reading Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, Truman Capote and my old pal Jonathan Pinnock (look him up).  The absence of women in that initial list is regrettable, but I am not here to misrepresent the facts.

So, this is my next point.  I was worried that reading and writing short stories would be disloyal to the novel, my first love, like an extra marital fling with a younger woman that destroys all we have worked so hard for.

As I say, I was a little silly.

So, after less than a term of study what have I discovered:

1 I am allowed to like short stories as well as novels

2 Only some short stories are shit – so are some novels

3 Not all short stories are pretentious or trite.  The ones I dislike are (IMHO)

4 The books/stories I enjoy are not the same as those enjoyed by everybody else

5 Reading short stories provides a short sharp shock to the mind, and raises questions for debate

6 Writing short stories disciplines the author who must get to the point and stick to it

If you too are frightened of a dalliance with the short story then here is a list of stories I would highly recommend.  It is a very personal list.  But perhaps as a good a place to start as any.

But don’t forget to read and write novels too.

Acid by James Kelman from Not Not While the Giro

Basically a disturbing paragraph.  His novel A disaffection is top drawer.

Canine Mathematics by Jonathan Pinnock from Dot Dash

Supreme silliness with a serious side

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff First appeared in The New Yorker

I read this for the MA.  As close to short story perfection for me as you can get.

Jenny by Kurt Vonnegut from While Mortals Sleep

Girl Pool by Kurt Vonnegut from While Mortals Sleep

Jenny is classic Vonnegut, a daft idea to discuss serious stuff

Girl Pool is a cleverly drawn scene at which you will life and then be horrified.

Time Travel in the Same Four Places by Caitlin Moran from Moranthology

You can argue until you’re blue in the face whether this is a short story, but I bet you cry.

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Where books live

Apparently, some people live in houses without books.  I know.  Weird.

I am not one those people.

We are not one of those families.

My wife likes to sleep on a bed of paperbacks surrounded by the day’s teacups.  My son, now fifteen, has never thrown a book away and considers Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series to be of the appropriate length for light reading (3 books of 800 pages each).  My daughter, as befits a nine year old, has lots of books of varying shapes and sizes.  These can be found under the duvet when getting into bed, on the sofa, in the cat’s food bowl, in the garden, under the brake pedal in the car.  You get the point.

We have quite a few books.

And the books have to live somewhere.

So we have quite a few bookshelves.

I decided to document the life of books in my house.  Let me tell you, they live well.

As you enter the house the first books you meet are in the hallway.

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When a newcomer arrives I expect them to stop by these shelves, to examine our taste, to find shared interests.  On the odd occasion that the type of person who simply doesn’t notice these books is allowed into the house, excuses are made by their hosts and their visit is brief.  These people are not our people.

I worry about what is on these shelves, what message we are giving to the world.  I mean, I have read Dan Brown and Jeffery Archer, but I don’t want them displayed here.  First impressions and all that.

Through to the kitchen.  Books in the kitchen you say?  But of course.  This is modern, open-plan living.  And my daughter’s clutter must have some place it can be hurriedly tidied to.  So there are piles of hastily stacked books to one day be tidied to a proper bookshelf.

And then there’s the cookbook section. Just the basics here:  A dollop of Delia, a spoonful of Nigella, a pinch of Jamie, alongside oddments discovered in magazines and newspapers.

In the lounge the blessed elephant (pictured below) safeguards the important manuals for the family:  First Aid, the Official Scrabble Dictionary, and Ukulele for Dummies.  Classic texts which will be on the school curriculum soon.

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I shall leave the front room until last.  All will become clear.

So upstairs we go.  On the landing is a little gathering of books inspired by a reading list at my son’s school.  We dip into this lot occasionally.

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On reaching the bedrooms the four different personalities of the family are clearly on display.  My bedside books are a collection of favourites and things to read urgently.  Some have been there a while, constantly getting shunted down the queue.   The wife’s bedside books are similar – favourites and to-reads – but not quite so neatly arranged.

Then there are the kid’s rooms.  What have we created?  If it weren’t for books they could live calm, minimalist lifestyles.

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My daughter has two bookshelves, because when you’re nine books come in all shapes and sizes.  The one on the left is the organised one.  The picture on the right illustrates my son’s need for more book-space.

So I have deliberately left the front room until last.  Come with me now back down the stairs.

Things get serious in the front room.  This is the room where I became a man.

Whatever image or scenario has flashed through your mind, I pity you.

This is where I successfully completed a major DIY project.  Oh yes.  Me.  DIY.

The only reason I completed it is because it involves books.  And when it comes to books I seem able to defeat my lethargy with all things ‘alpha male will fix it’.

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I want you to look again.  I BUILT THOSE!!!!!!!!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that child one is in his GCSE year and therefore has a dedicated desk to the right.  And child two is a bit of a dancer and has taken up valuable book space with large, shiny trophies.

I cannot imagine a house without books.  My family’s history is in those books.  We can remember when and where we got each one, when we read them, how we were feeling, whether we read them alone or shared them.  And, if we leave them there long enough, we may have forgotten enough about them to one day take them down and enjoy them all over again.