The rules of this game require me to select a dozen stories, no more, no fewer – which is both a blessing and a curse. Twelve is enough to get anyone thinking, far too few to represent the range of writers and stories we should celebrate. But formal constraint can be a spur to invention, so I have invented another arbitrary rule to give myself a principle of selection. Which brings me to story number one:
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
Tvetan Todorov says that the thing about a short story is that it’s so short it doesn’t allow us time to forget that it’s only literature and not actually life.
I’ve enjoyed AM Homes’ tough-minded, acerbic, emotionally off-kilter stories for years – from the one about dating a Barbie doll to the recent tour-de-force about love and atrocity, ‘Days of Awe’ (Granta 143; collected in Days of Awe, Granta Books, 2018). But I’ve chosen ‘Things You Should Know’ for purely personal reasons. When I studied Chemistry at school I always felt I was missing something basic: I muddled along, I passed the exam, but I never quite knew how or why. There must have been some explanation at the start of term that I had somehow missed. Over the years, this sensation recurred – remind me again why structuralism mattered? What is it you expect from me in this job, exactly? – until one day in 2003 I read: “There are things I do not know. I was absent the day they passed out the information sheets.” And I have never forgotten it. The sheets the narrator believes were handed out by her fourth grade teacher include, she guesses, “Not things to know, not things you will learn, but things you already should know but maybe are a little dumb, so you don’t.” It was perhaps the most banal epiphany ever because the fact that it’s a story – and the collection’s title story at that – means mine is obviously not a purely personal response at all.
Collected in Things You Should Know, Granta Books, 2003
Franz Kafka (Smith says) says that a short story is a cage in search of a bird.
Melville’s story – like Smith’s – employs a leisurely, nineteenth-century frame in which the narrator introduces himself and his other employees before getting on to Bartleby, and ends with an epilogue in which he explains what little he can and generalizes desperately: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” It is desperate because all this paraphernalia is being deployed in a doomed attempt to capture the soul of the competent but wilful copyist whose power over our imagination comes precisely from the fact that he would “prefer not” – to work, to leave the office, to recognize the incongruity of his position. A man who would literally prefer to starve to death in prison than explain himself. Is Bartleby as free as a bird? Hardly, but the story’s inability to capture him is the reason it’s impossible to forget.
First published in Putnam’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 1853, included in Piazza Tales, 1856, and now published everywhere, including by Melville House Publishing, 2004 and online here
Nadine Gordimer says short stories are about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark.
I recently wrote a story in which a man in his sixties easily locates a book he hasn’t read since university, because his shelves are so well organized. Pure fantasy, of course: the set of books I’ve read is much larger than the set of those I can currently lay my hands on. I’ve chosen ‘A Walk in the Park’ from The Burn partly for its brutally ambiguous title, and partly, if I’m honest, because I simply could not find my copies of his earlier collections Greyhound for Breakfast and Not, not while the giro. If you’re only familiar with the novels – or not familiar with Kelman at all – these are a treat. Pure slivers of working class Glaswegian life, with all the poverty and alcohol and love and rage that the late 80s had to offer, but all rendered with minute attention to the detail of language and dialect. It’s prose you have to read at talking speed – which suits me fine: I’m a slow reader – tuning in to the demotic speech and thought-patterns of his frequently broken, but always human, characters. Some people found Kelman difficult to read – just as, more recently, some inexplicably declared Anna Burns’ Milkman difficult to read – but if you can’t hear Kelman’s people talking in your head, it’s because you’re not listening. Slow down.
‘A Walk in the Park’ maintains a perfect balance between banality and tragedy in the story of a man and woman, both weighed down by failed relationships; they meet and wonder what to do of an afternoon:
They stood staring at each other for several moments. Then she said: The library?
A walk in the park?
But a walk in the park it is. They even hold hands. She tries, she teases, and he tries, too, but all the while he’s keeping the lid on a boiling rage born of frustration, of an awareness of his own inability to cope.
A brief flash, indeed, if fireflies lived for thirty years.
First published in The Burn, Secker and Warburg, 1991; Minerva paperback 1992; currently available from Polygon, 2009
Eudora Welty says that short stories often problematize their own best interests and that this is what makes them interesting.
Which brings us to Beckett. I don’t go in much for heroes: Joe Strummer, maybe, Samuel Beckett. Beckett spent six decades writing stories that, in Smith/Welty’s words, increasingly problematized their own best interests – if you think it’s in the interest of a story to be a story, or even to be read. But when you can’t go on, and can’t not go on, either, what else can you do?
So where to start? I’ve plumped, perversely perhaps, for the end. Not The End, written forty years earlier, but Stirrings Still, the last completed prose he wrote. In it a man, unnamed but recognizable to Beckett readers from long before The Unnameable (1953), sits alone in a bare room and contemplates his own death. A barrel of laughs? Not exactly. Beckett is at heart a comic writer and fabulously funny (the two don’t always go together) but his humour, always bleak, was struck from harder and harder rock as time went on. However, there is a moment of clarity here, perhaps even of grace, that had eluded him in much of the later prose. He recalls an old friend (who had died and left him, naturally) and a favourite poem; there are hints of Beckett’s own literary hero, Dante, and in the end, a glimmer of a hint of an idea that he might, after all, have managed to fail better:Such and more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end. And you can’t say fairer than that.
First published in a signed limited edition, and in The Guardian, 3 March 1989; later republished in the posthumous edition As the Story Was Told (1990). Available in Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho / Stirrings Still, Faber & Faber, 2009: and in The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, Grove Press, 1995
Henry James says that the short story, being so condensed, can give a particularized perspective on both complexity and continuity.
I’ve paired James and Wodehouse partly because I can’t help thinking ‘The Master’ would be outraged, while Wodehouse would be tickled pink, and partly because “complexity and continuity” captures perfectly the essence of a Wodehouse story. Blandings will never change: the inadequacies of foolish young men and officious private secretaries will always be overcome by a combination of smart, attractive young women and the apparently accidental interventions of the ninth Earl; there will never be a tenth; the Empress will sicken and fatten, but never be slaughtered for pork chops. That we know all this is part of the joy, allowing us to wallow in the glory of the comic engineering like … well, like pigs in mud.
There are those, of course, who prefer the world of Jeeves and Wooster, and a handful with a soft spot for Psmith, against whom I say nothing; but for me, in the short form at least, nothing Wodehouse wrote could better ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’.
First appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, October 1936, and the Strand, January 1937. It was included in the collection Lord Emsworth and Others, 1937, which is currently available from Everyman, 2002. The story is included in a number of collections and available alone as a ‘Penguin Modern Mini Classic’, Penguin, 2011