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.