Ali Smith is one of the greats, and it would be ironic if in my anthology of Big Subjects, I did not include as one of the Big Subjects the art of the short story itself. Of course, ‘True Short Story’ is not so much about the art (or history) of the short story. At least, it is at the surface, and then just beyond that it is about cancer, and just beyond that again it is about women’s healthcare. It is about more besides. The more you read it, the more it unfurls. Smith is a consummate stylist, and even though this story is based around a series of conversations – had, eavesdropped, and conducted via voicemail back-and-forths – it is still no easy trick to have a story feel like a conversation between friends. The story ends with a series of paraphrased quotes from the great and good about the art of short stories, that also seem to accumulate into something pertaining to the meaning of life, and ways in which to live a good one. One of them is from Grace Paley, and it says “she chose to write only short stories in her life because art is too long and life is too short”.
First published in The First Person, Pantheon, 2008. Available to read on Prospect, here
There was a viral tweet a while back about how people visualise things (or don’t). There was the command of ‘imagine an apple’ followed by a sliding scale from shiny red apple at ‘category 1’, fading in colour and clarity through to a blank ‘category 5’ for those who don’t ‘see’ anything in their head that way (aphantasia). It led to some interesting chats about how different writers (and readers) see the images written on a page. For my part it was a head-scratcher. My apple was not only bright and clear but spinning: stop-motion chomps being bitten out of it to the core, then back again, bullet-time pivots, relocations of apple on tree/in bowl/on grass/in hand. The same when creating story structure and scene and time: zooming in, out, around, trying different permutations like a sort of textual Transformer in a tizz.
But it’s okay. I can always re-read this story from the great Ali Smith, with all its “no”, “wait”, “hang on” refocusing and re-establishing of its gaze, and I’ll feel very at home indeed.
In The Whole Story and other stories, Penguin 2003
I hunted through my Ali Smith collection for a story I remembered, featuring a Smith-ish narrator and her father at a gallery, and spent a happy moment not finding that story, browsing, and finding many others that might have ended up here. I settled on ‘And So On’, which preambles and ambles through stories within stories, presenting: life as art; art as an imitation of life; life lived well and true as something that cannot be faked; art as something to hold onto in the face of death; death as a stealer-away, a cheat; and artful living (and dying) as a double-cheat so that death is not the end of the story, but only a part.
Collected in Public Library and Other Stories, Penguin, 2016
Here, Smith brings all her verbal dexterity to bear on the distinction between ‘the female gaze’ and ‘the female gays,’ writing from a perspective that simultaneously shows us the perspective of a child who is intrigued by her lesbian neighbours, the child’s disapproving mother, and the ‘female gays’ themselves.
First published in Five Dials 44: The Female Gaze, March 2017
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
Smith uses clean and unsentimental language to make the reader feel a great deal. This is down to tremendous technical control and faculties of perceptiveness and compassion. ‘Free Love’ is a story of lesbian sexual discovery with an optimistic, bittersweet ending. It reads like real life. You can just picture the Amsterdam of this story in summertime: all canals and sunshine, a site of desire and potential, full of hope and openness and heady, finite young love.
From Free Love, Virago, 1995
Another anecdote which becomes so much more, this one about reaching the end of the line and getting stuck there.
First published in The Whole Story and Other Stories, 2003. Read it online here
To my mind, nothing can convey flares of tenderness like a short story (…possibly this says more about me than I’d like) and no-one conveys flares of tenderness like Ali Smith. ‘The Second Person’ feels as personal as an anecdote and as universal as a fable, wheeling without ever being wheedling and ridiculous without being laughable. That’s what every great love story should be, and this one also features accordion shops and Ella Fitzgerald. Prat-fall into love with Smith’s light touch and then read everything else by her right now right now right now.
(First Collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2008. First published in and available to read on Prospect, 2005, here)
I discovered Ali Smith in my early twenties and wasted a good deal of time attempting to write stories in her ‘style’, an act of mimicry I now understand to be impossible (at least, for me). Style, form and genre are notions Smith treats with elastic generosity. This story is part-anecdote, part-joke, part-myth, part-memoir, part-essay and part-speculation on what a short story is at all. With Ali Smith, there’s always voice in an intimate, embodied sense — the feeling that a good and trusted person is sitting with you, reading the story very quickly and quite close to your ear.
First published in Prospect Magazine, 2005 and collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2008. Read online.