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.
Supreme silliness with a serious side
I read this for the MA. As close to short story perfection for me as you can get.
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.