Monday, April 6, 2009

Short Story Thoughts via Ali Smith and James Lasdun

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!


groovyoldlady said... lame public educated American brain can't get past thinking of "Chimamanda Ngozi Adchie" as a household name. Household name? I can't even pronounce it!!

(That's a slam on my silly head, not on the author, who is, I am sure, worth being known.)

Ah, My word verification is "vuretsk" which probably means "household name" in Romanian.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Great post. Interesting to me, how some people have to make outrageous claims, as if novels have no merit, and only short stories do, or the other way around for that matter. A great piece of fiction is a great piece of fiction, pure and simple, at least in my estimation. It's like comparing a good wine to a good ale. They are, each in their own way delicious. I'll leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Elizabeth, but I also get what Ali Smith is saying. There is that debate raging in writing circles at the moment - the short story vs the novel.

I am a big poetry reader and a natural segue for me from poetry was to the short story. They are both full of lots of secrets for me to decipher.

However, my first love will always be the novel. A good novel can transport me fully to another world rather than just exploring an issue or a concept as is often the case with the short story. I don't mean that as a criticism, by the way. Like you, I find the ideas explored in a short story need to germinate and be fully considered, whereas there is a little more of a free form element to the novel.

I like both. I think both are necessary and important. Good writing is good writing regardless of the format. As long as we're all reading and writing there is hope.

Lauri said...

GOL- Have no fear about not knowing CNA. When CNA and Jhumpha Lahiri gave stories for One World we were all over the moon but when I told people outside of my computer they weren't that excited. I do think in some instances we writers tend to live in a parallel universe.

Elizabeth and Selma- I agree completely with you. My thought was more about when you write novels do you feel they can easily go flabby? I suppose I've read flabby short stories too. Maybe you two are right- good writing is good writing. Still I don't see myself ever writing a book of 100,000 words. If I did I'd likely have to edit it back to 70,000.

Petina Gappah said...

Thanks very much for this, Lauri! Horribly embarrassing, but thank you.

Lauri said...

Why embarrassed? I'm not being kind, I just want people to know I knew you BEFORE the fame. Hoping a bit will rub off on me...:)