photo by Justyna Furmanczyk
‘…a non-starter when it comes to discussion…’
by Mike Smith
There was something in Professor’s May’s article for Thresholds that I couldn’t let go of, something that, it seemed to me, was based on an assumption that needed questioning, or at least needed to be put into a broader context.
That something was his statement that ‘short stories cannot be skimmed, read quickly or summarized’. It’s the sort of remark that makes my hackles rise, regardless of who makes it, because I know that short stories can be skimmed and read quickly, and that they are frequently summarized. They are read in buses, trains, and waiting rooms, between appointments and in snatches while the boss is away. They are recalled to friends in shaky patches and fragmented recollections. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most short stories are actually written to be approached in this manner.
This fact – that short stories are skimmed and read quickly – might, however, elicit a response such as ‘ah yes, but reading like that doesn’t count’ which, by extension, implies that readers like that don’t count either.
Stephen King, writing his introduction to the re-published edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (quoted in The Telegraph Review, 23/07/11) makes some useful contributions to this debate. He is writing about novels, but gives a nod to short stories and poetry, too, when he gives us a rule of thumb: ‘feel it first, think about it later.’
He has already given us a context for this: ‘If the novel is strictly about emotion and imagination, […] then analysis is swept away and discussion of the book becomes irrelevant.’
What King is reminding us of here is that discussion may be a consequence of reading, but it is not necessarily the purpose of writing, and my suggestion, which is not entirely in opposition to Professor May’s, is that short stories must work at that more visceral level if they are to be worth the discussions that might follow. The levels at which ‘emotion and imagination’ operate are not those of academic, intellectual appreciation. King, of course, has been dismissed by some critics, as was Vonnegut before him, but his book On Writing remains one of the best on its subject (as does Professor May’s The New Short Story Theories).
The pleasure we get from the short stories we have skimmed may be less, in all sorts of ways, than that which would be derived from a deeper reading, but I think we should pause before dismissing this manner of reading entirely. Reading is a form of entertainment, and though there are writers who labour to impress an academic audience alone with their fiction, there are far more who write to push the emotional and imaginative buttons of a less academic readership. Many of these are producing writing that will be capable of sustaining deeper discussion, but stories that haven’t already satisfied that more atavistic urge to be entertained are lesser stories: mere exercises in technique, rather than technique put to use. I have a recording of the late Norman Nicholson, arguably the most important poet to come out of Cumberland since Wordsworth, in which he tells me, ‘I’m an entertainer, Mike, not a philosopher.’
E. M. Forster, with his ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story’ (Aspects of the Novel, Penguin 2005 ), may have started this assault on the stature of story in literature, but story has survived it. The fact that a story is written down does not turn it into a puzzle or conundrum. It may be that the written short story is one of several possible methods of recording a narrative form intended to be taken ‘at a sitting’, in one go, as it comes, and without recourse to turning back the page to re-read, in other words the score to an oral, aural form: to be experienced rather than to be studied. The makers of stories may have good reason to study their construction. The readers of stories might not. A car can perfectly well take you where you want to go without you knowing how to strip down the gearbox.
C. S. Lewis writes that a story ‘is a net to catch something else’ (in Of Other Worlds, Mariner 2002 ). Academic discussion might be said to be about the qualities of the net, while non-academic responses are probably more often about what has been caught, even when, as Lewis goes on to say, it is usually not the prey that was initially intended.
Short stories may be complex and nuanced, but if they are not immediately accessible at some level, available to be quickly read and skimmed over, they are failing in their primary function, which is to entertain, in a perusal of ‘one to two hours’, as Poe would have it.
‘This blew me away’ is pretty much of a non-starter when it comes to […] discussion […], but […] it’s still the beating heart of fiction’ – from Stephen King’s introduction to Lord of the Flies.