I was recently given Ali Smith’s short story collection The First Person and Other Stories. I’ve hardly gotten into it as I tend to like to read short story collections slowly; reading a story and then going back to my current novel. Short stories, good ones at least, I feel, must percolate. They must steep and stew so the real strength of the story can emerge. Reading one after another in a collection tends to make for a weak experience so I read them like eating fine dark chocolates- one at a time.
There is a funny bit in a sad story in Ali Smith’s collection, the first one called “True Short Story” of which all might be a lie I don’t know. In there the narrator is wondering if what she overheard might be correct. She was listening to two men discussing the difference between short stories and novels. The young man says the novel is a “flabby old whore” while the short story “by comparison was a nimble goddess, a slim nymph”. Later the narrator’s friend says when asked what she thought of these men’s comments “A short story is like a nymphomaniac because both like to sleep around – or get into lots of anthologies- but neither accepts money for the pleasure. Unlike the bawdy old whore, the novel...”
I laughed out loud when I read this. Although I love novels; I love to read and write them, I do feel sometimes they have a bit too much space. When I hear of writers writing novels of 100,000 words, I get panicked. I often feel that type of space would make me lax and prone to going off on tangents with no point. When I first started writing, I was stuck in 500 words; at 1000 I used to feel I was being indulgent. I do write novels now which almost always I edit back to novella length. I just tend to find too much fat on them hovering up there in 50,000 – 65,000 range. Perhaps there is truth in what Ali Smith says. I’d be curious to hear from others.
Other short story news. Petina Gappah is a writer that should give all writers hope. I have said here and elsewhere that in a couple of years she will be a household name like her continent-mate Chimamanda Ngozi Adchie- well a household name in a book loving /writer loving household that is. Petina is a lawyer who only really started to gain writing momentum after winning a prize in SA/PEN a few years ago. Now her collection of short stories is being reviewed by The Guardian and she is part of panel discussions that include Salman Rushdie. She is a One World-er, an excellent writer, and a supportive and giving person. Here’s an excerpt of James Lasdun’s review of a few short story collections he has taken a fancy to; he had this to say about An Elegy for Easterly, Petina’s short story collection:
Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer currently living in Switzerland. Aids, corruption, lethally callous attitudes to women and surreal levels of inflation ("we handed over a million dollars each to our driver" is a typical line) form the outward coordinates of her characters' lives in An Elegy for Easterly. The desire to get ahead or, better still, get out - if only to join those who "have flooded England to wipe old people's bottoms for a living" - occupies most of their inner life. … All of these pieces depend on swiftness and lightness for their effect; flaring up into momentary life and then fading out before they acquire any burdensome solemnity, and this, too, seems true to the essential nature of the form.
Yeah for Ms Gappah!