Thursday 22 January 2009

Stories: It's not word count that matters, it's what you do with the words

Recently I have been reading Quantum of Solace: the complete collection of the James Bond short stories and About Love and other Stories by Anthon Chekhov.

While the stories in both volumes are quite different they are both obviously short fiction collections. I think these tales are a much neglected form of writing and have been wondering why that is. When you think about it many great writers have either written shorter or short fiction. These stories aren’t lost but equally how often do you see someone reading short stories on a train, or how often do you find a short story in a newspaper supplement? (I am referring to British papers here).

I think in many ways in these very busy modern times a collection of shorter tales can be far more satisfying than a long novel that takes you time to complete because so many of us can never sit down for two or three hours and really consume a a novel, or let it consume us.

Short stories can be just as profound and stay with just as much as a longer tale when they are well written.

I studied short stories as part of my A- Level in English literature and found them interesting but preferred the novels, but at the time I had the time to read all day!

My interest in short fiction was re awakened when I bought a collection of Christmas stories last year. One of the stories was a haunting tale about a lonely old lady organising a Christmas party. I won’t spoil the story but it really affected me and the tale has stayed with me ever since.

The James Bond stories could perhaps be seen as working because you already know the character and background of 007 so less characterisation and exposition is required. I tried to read them thinking about what my response would if I didn't know the written and screen Bonds so well and I think the stories hold up well. Fleming’s written style might be sparse but he makes very definite statements about characters that work well in a short story and his narrative thread is usually very strong. The Chekhov stories are different again, some of them do involve recurring characters but others don’t and they are all interesting, although more taxing than the Bonds.

I enjoy being able to read a story and feel a sense of completion before I go to sleep or when I get off a train. Of course I also enjoy a longer experience with a book, being able to look forward to reading more of a really gripping story when I get home and having that feeling you have of a secret life or love when you are really engaged with a great book. However I often find that I start a book and realise I could love it but I either end up giving myself three hours sleep a night or end up not enjoying the book as much as I know I would if I could read it for longer. Short stories don’t give me that same sense that there is always something I haven’t finished quite properly that taking a long time to read a long book can do


vicki archer said...

Long live the art of story telling Rose, xv.

Rose said...

Hi Vicki, we need good stories don't we Rx

The Daily Connoisseur said...

Rose- I love short stories too- Last spring I read "Heavenly Date and Other Stories" by Alexander McCall Smith and it was divine. Each short story was one date- some were funny, some were touching, some were dark.

You should pick it up... you'd love it!

Perfumeshrine said...

There is a sense of great ambition in writing a novel, sin't there? I mean, think about it, great writers became immortalised through their big, fat novels.
Then again, there are all the reasons you state and the fact that there is a sense of instant gratification on the readers' part with short stories which begs the question: why aren't they popular in this time and age of all times? Beats me.

Rose said...

Daily, that sounds wonderful, I have thought of doing similar stories myself- although I am not quite Alexander McCall Smith! I will look for that one. Thanks for the recommendation!

Rose said...

Hi E, yes it's true a great work of fiction is normally also a great big work of fiction.

I'm glad you agree that it would make sense for short stories to be popular now!

Jayne said...

That is a great accolade for short stories! Time is definitely a constraint these days, and it can be so satisfying to choose a short story to read. They can pack just as much of a punch – even more so at times as our sojourn in their world is so brief. My favourite short story collection is probably Roald Dahl’s ‘Over to You’ – ten stories based on his experiences as a wartime fighter pilot. Heart-breaking, uplifting, magical – quite simply lovely to read.

Rose said...

Hi Jayne, I'm so glad short stories have other fans!
I have not read over to you but it sounds great and like something that would make a good present for some of them men in my life so thank you for the recommendation.

I agree sometimes short stories really pack a punch. The one I mentioned about the old lady and the party did, I just sat there with my mouth open at the end and felt as (spoilers) sad for her as I would have for a character I had got to know over 400 pages I think. It's quite an art form to do that in so few words.

Anonymous said...

I haven't commented yet this year so Happy New Year to you! Your post resonates with me. since I recently finished a wonderful collection of short stories by a write I'd not known of previously, Mollie Panter-Downes (great name!). She is apparently mostly known for her wartime and after articles written in England but published in the New Yorker. The stories were placed during war time too and made me laugh, cry and generally marvel at the skill of using few words to describe so much.(Persephone books is the publisher). I like Chekhov short stories too, and Maupassant. And any victorian short ghost story! I must look out for the Ian Flemming. Thanks alot! donanicola

Rose said...

Hi Donanicola, Happy New Year too!
I love Persephone Books, admire their business and covet owning all their titles. Apart from being very interesting they look so delicious lined up in those dove grey dust jackets don't they?!

I haven't read this one, so far I have only read Miss Pettigrew but they are all on my list.

The Mollie Panter Downs stories sound wonderful and I must say I have a weakness for anything war time.

Thank you for the recommendation- my to read list is getting even longer!!

Anonymous said...

Dear Rose!
I'm a voracious reader and loved this post... Short stories, I think, are miniature works of art, and I was told when studying for my A Levels that they were incredibly difficult to write: but I marvel every time I read the printed word in book form anyway!
I ADORE Persephone books and have a row of them - I've visited the shop and bought one of their book bags too. (By my side as I'm writing this!)
Now I'm off to buy the Ian Fleming collection which you are enjoying!
Have a lovely weekend,

Rose said...

Dear Linda,
Miniature works of art is a very good description.
Aren't the Persephone books wonderful and the whole idea behind them of resurrecting forgotten gems is lovely. It just goes to show how many great books either don't get published or get forgotten.
I hope you like the James Bonds if you get them
Have a lovely weekend too!

ScentScelf said...

I think the short story is an art unto itself, and one that is a bit tricky to execute and fully appreciate. Sometimes people refer to it as "shorthand," but I really think it forces you to carve and focus on moments/elements, not add on like long form does.

Am in the middle of a collection by Alice Munro, Runaway, which I am loving being able to step into and then let it sit for a while before I return again.

Glad you are enjoying reading...I nod my teacup toward you, and look forward to my own session with words!

Rose said...

Hi scentscelf, yes the other good thing about short story collections is you don't have to read them all at once. You can just dip in and out.
I raise my tea cup to you too!