‘True Short Story’ by Ali Smith

This most playful of stories about truth and fiction kicks off with a boorish conversation in which two men in a café discuss the difference between the novel (“A flabby old whore!”) and the short story (“a slim nymph”). It careens through a litany of more-or-less awful jokes, a disquisition on friendship and time, a passage of literary criticism/creative writing tips (we’ll come back to that) and a heartfelt plea for wider access to the cancer drug Herceptin. So, is this even a story, let alone a true one?
Well, it contains facts: Smith’s friend, with whom she says she wrote the story in discussion, had cancer and would have to pay for the drug. The initial prompt for the story came, Smith has said, from overhearing a conversation pretty much exactly like the one described. But there’s the rub. The written story starts not with the conversation, but with Smith sitting in the café observing the two men and – in the way that we all do – speculating about who they might be, before the second paragraph begins: “I stopped making them up.” She starts listening instead. In this manoeuvre Smith simultaneously highlights the artifice of the story, claims to reject that artifice in favour of truth and employs a classic framing device beloved of so many ‘realist’ storytellers. Whether you like this sort of metatextual game is a matter of taste – I do, up to a point – but there’s no denying Smith’s skill and sheer chutzpah.
It’s also the perfect palate-tickler for an anthology. Smith chucks in reflections on the short story from a dozen or so writers and literary theorists. One of them, Elizabeth Bowen, says that the short story “creates narrative every time absolutely on its own terms”, which is certainly true of this story. Wondering how the other prescriptions might stand up gave me my self-imposed rule.

First published and still available in Prospect, Dec 17 2005; collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Penguin 2009

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