Adventures In Writing And Reading, Part 1.
Gah. Huh. Hold it. Is this thing on? Ok. Well. Yeah. I’m no good with these things, addressing the audience directly and all that, and I don’t really know how to begin. Lets just explain what I wanted to write about and then I can just get on with it because once I’m past the beginning bit it’ll all start to work a lot better. Hopefully. I wanted to write about short stories, other people’s short stories, but my initial hurdle was working out how I wanted to approach it. See, the reasons for me wanting to write about this were along these lines…
I read, and write, a lot of short stories. A lot of short story writers inspire and influence me. So. A little while ago I stumbled across a WordPress site called Short Story Addict which submitted a review of a short story each day. I enquired of the writer of this blog (James) whether he ever reviewed unpublished work and sure enough he agreed to read one of my own efforts. His review of ‘Gareth and the new shed’ turned out to be the last thing he posted. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t break the blog, though perhaps I put him off reading short stories for good (if so, I apologise to him and to anyone else who has ever read anything I have posted here).
Anyway, it made me think about writing about short stories myself, sorting through the mass of published works instead of just adding my own clutter to the (even bigger I imagine) mass of unpublished stuff. So here I am, and here you are. Don’t go! My aim was to write not just a quick review but to add in some thoughts as to what makes a good short story, what I like about short stories and anything else that the stories I have picked might throw up.
I’ll get on with it…
RICHARD BRAUTIGAN: Times Square In Montana from ‘The Tokyo-Montana Express’
Of course, I wanted to start by writing about my favourite author, Richard Brautigan. His best collection of short stories is probably ‘Revenge of the Lawn’ but, in-a-wrong-way-round-kind-of-way I have lent my copy of this book to a librarian. So instead, I’m going to turn to his collection, ‘The Tokyo-Montana Express’ and witter a while about a short story about changing lightbulbs. You see, this is the kind of thing I like to read short stories about – tiny, simple, everyday tasks which become bigger and more complex once they are approached with an imagination and enthusiasm for celebrating the mundane. I get the impression that Richard Brautigan lived his life by looking for the strange and profound in everyday events. It’s certainly how I exist.
Listen to this: “Last night after watching a high school basketball game in town, I went to a store that is open 24 hours a day and bought two light bulbs, which was one of the greatest adventures of my life.” Which is a great way to set in motion a story about buying lighbulbs. I don’t want to spoil the story/ put you off reading it (delete as appropriate) so I won’t go into too much detail but I can say that this is not a story with a major twist – not much happens beyond the purchase and fitting (etcetera, etcetera) of lightbulbs in a house, filtered through the lens of the author’s paranoia and dreams (etcetera). Brautigan is funny and engaging and a great advert for the impetus behind a short story being how-you-tell, not what-you-tell.
RAY BRADBURY: No Particular Night Or Morning from ‘The Illustrated Man’
Here’s something that I think people want when they decide to read a short story: wisdom. They want to learn something. It’s why so many short stories that you read have a twist in the tale or some kind of poignant ending designed to make the reader go ‘ah’ as they finish the piece. That way they can put the book of short stories down and go off to do the washing up with the resultant lesson in mind. Which is fair enough – they don’t want aimless stories about buying lightbulbs, they want…
Ray Bradbury! Because he is the master at this kind of thing. And when it is done well it is a more organic process than the one described above. Bradbury often takes his stories into outer space but the emotional punch of his writing is always rooted in human logic, desires, feelings, failings. No Particular Night Or Morning is little more than a philosophical discussion set in space, played out between two characters who act as blank canvases, reeling the reader into the discussion (and questions of memory and reality and time and self). This story works so well because Ray Bradbury is able to tap into the worries and cares that most people carry around with them. And then makes them think. Read him!
ALESSANDRO BOFFA: You Look Like You Could Use A Drink, Viskovitz from ‘You’re An Animal Viskovitz’
This is the funniest short story I have read… shall I say ever? Let’s say ever. For now. And it’s only three pages long. And it’s written by a biologist! How to explain… This is a collection of short stories about (largely unrequited) love, with each story concerning itself with a different species – snails, lions, scorpions, etc – and their particular physical/ cultural/ sexual quandaries. It is heavy on biology but instead of hindering the stories, this creates new narratives.
In ‘You Look Like You Could Use A Drink…’ Viskovitz (as the protaganist in each tale is named) is a calcareous sponge, a creature which would not seem to offer a writer much material to fashion a story from. Boffa must be congratulated for inventing such a great one. The problems with being a sponge in love seem to be the following – an inability to move in any way and his unannounced and sudden periodic sex changes. Which all makes it very complicated. And I shall not say any more about it because it is only three pages long and so if I say much more I will spoil it all together.
That’s it for now! That wasn’t too bad…
In the next episode of this (and there shall surely be a next episode now that I have taken the step of writing a first) I will discuss some, more or all of the following: Robert Shearman, Adam Marek, AC Tillyer, AL Kennedy, Dan Purdue, Tao Lin, David Gaffney, Judith Schalansky, Stanley Donwood, Kurt Vonnegut… who knows!