Saturday, 3 November 2007

The short story (for ShoStoWriMo)

Richard Ford writes about the short story, with many examples including Cheever and Carver, as you'd expect, but also Tobias Woolf (aren't those two related somehow?), Mary Gaitskell, Chekhov (people who think of him as only a playwright are missing out big-time), Deborah Eisenberg and VS Pritchett, considered by many as a master of the genre.

It's always struck as a bit odd how everyone professes to consider the short story and the novel as two distinct forms, yet it's always thought of as perfectly normal when a person who has hitherto only ever written stories then proceeds to tackle a novel. There's a definite feeling of coming of age, as if an 800 metres runner had finally grown up and found his courage by taking on a marathon.

In fact, you'd be pushed to name a writer who was at home in both forms. I can think of short story writers, and I can think of novelists, and I can think of writers who have done both, but I can't think of one who has straddled the line convincingly. The classic greats like Chekhov and Maupassant stayed within the form, as did modern greats like Carver, and living writers like Alice Munro. Novelists like Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis (if they ever marry they can share their monograms) have written short stories, but not very good ones. Tobias Woolf's stories are very good, whereas the only novel I've read was very much a thinly-disguised autobiography, like most first novels.

It's a terrible thing indeed that the market for short stories is shrinking so far and so fast nowadays, because while the good writers won't stop as a result, it will make life that bit harder for them, as publishers are known to be unwilling to take on volumes of stories unless the client is already a heavyweight novelist and has to be indulged.

I don't know what the answer is, and nor does anyone else, by the look of it. The article concludes:

VS Pritchett wrote that short stories were "exquisitely difficult" things to make. Though by that I don't think he meant that they were such difficult things to "put together", since we've all read bad ones that were put together rather neatly. Rather, I believe Pritchett meant that they were difficult things - the great ones, anyway - to imagine, in the way Chekhov imagined "The Lady with the Dog", or in the way that imagining time is more difficult than making a clock tick. One task asks for skill, the other for serious daring of the sort Pritchett understood and could perform splendidly, as could his great friend Miss Welty from the rich turbulence of her "sheltered life". I think of her now, gone from us - Pritchett, too, and Carver - having left so much of excellence. Their great spirits and incomparable stories spell out so well for us where daring starts and where it leads, and exactly why it is the pure and indispensable and thrilling call that brings us all to stories.