Mostly (not) on McSweeney's!

A blog for my academic ideas, more or less.

Flash Fiction

This week in my short story seminar we talked about flash fiction. I missed the lecture because I left my bike keys at home and had to improvise some storage in a friend’s house. I decided to not hide my ineptitude from my students and used the fact I missed the lecture to fuel the first part of our discussion.

I went around the room and got them to write down one thing that defines a short story. (The lecture was on defining the short story.) Luckily, most of them didn’t say ‘short’. We got a range of response going from ‘it’s collected’ to ’emphasis on morality’ and ‘limited character set’. What I wanted to make them think about, though, was its shortness. Does this impose limits on what a writer can achieve? Does it prevent a short story from being considered as ‘literary’ as a novel? Is longer automatically better?

So I flip-reversed things a bit. Having said that I didn’t want to focus on ‘short’ as the defining characteristic, we spent the rest of our time analysing flash fiction, i.e. very short short stories. I cheated a little and used two of my favourite contemporary poets, Shane Jones and Ellen Kennedy, because some of their poems feel like f-f at times and I wanted to see what my students would make of them. I gave two groups ‘Axe Wants to Save’ and ‘I made the man at the grocery store nervous’ by SJ and EK respectively, one group a Dan Rhodes short short from Anthropology.

The other group I gave a ‘mystery story’, which turned out to be the ultimate flash – the apocryphal Hemingway, ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ For each text, the groups had to make a case for its short-storyness, focusing mainly on ‘literary merit’. The point was, of course, that there are no clear answers to this, but they made some good cases. They identified the fable-like qualities of SJ’s work, and the more poetic construction of EK’s text. They also explained how we could argue they were shorts because of what they offer the reader, based on the characteristics already discussed earlier.

We closed the first session with a discussion of Twitter and microwriting, as I pushed my agenda of making them think about the importance of modes of dissemination for literary content.

A good class! (Times two seminars.)

My 19thC American lit class was harder work, with Hawthorne’s short stories perplexing them with their inherent ambiguities. More on this class next week…going to try and understand the challenge of teaching second years if it kills me.

Filed under: teaching

The Short Story

I’m teaching seminars at Goldsmiths this term on The Short Story. I think I’m going to have some fun with this course. We had our first class on Monday and I read them Arthur Bradford’s ‘Mollusks’ from the first issue of McSweeney’s as a taster for what I like and what one aspect of the ‘contemporary’ short story might be.

I asked my new students about their favourite writers, and if they made any distinction between novels and short stories in this regard. Turns out most of them did! There was a lot of mention of Bret Easton Ellis and Jack Kerouac from the guys, Angela Carter from the girls. Some other less common responses, too, like a Franzen fan and some Richard Brautigan and Lorrie Moore. I rambled about David Foster Wallace, as is my privilege/fatal flaw.

Next week’s class is still ostensibly an introduction to the short story, and we start in on the reading list proper the week after (we do Boccaccio and the medieval tale).

Which means I get to impose some of my own reading on them a bit before the reading list takes over. I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do, and I think trying to push them in the direction of starting to make generalisations about short stories is best. I’ve been reading Richard Ford’s introduction to the Granta American short story anthology, and it’s less ornery than I remembered. I like Richard Ford but sometimes he can be a bit difficult to take. He says some good stuff:

I don’t know why people write stories. Raymond Carver said he wrote them because he was drunk a lot and his kids were driving him crazy, and a short story was all he had concentration for. Sometimes, he said, he wrote them in a parked car.

I think it would’ve been nice to have a beer with RF and RC.

Or maybe story writers–more so than novelists–are moralists at heart, and the form lends itself to acceptable expressions of caution: You! You’re not paying enough attention to your life, parcelled out as it is in increments smaller and more significant than you seem aware of.

I like his exclamation mark.

I’ve always liked stories that make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language, feeling as I do that exposure to a writer’s special language is a rare and consoling pleasure. I think of stories as objects made of language, not just as reports on or illustrations of life, and within that definition, a writer’s decision to represent life ‘realistically’ is only one of a number of possibilities for the use of his or her words.

Amen!

Filed under: mcsweeneys

About Me:

My name is Kevin O'Neill and I am in the fifth year of a part-time PhD in the English Department of Goldsmiths, London, UK. I used to teach undergrad classes there (now: not, because there are other PhD students who need teaching experience). I work (most of the time) in the Oxfam shop in Dalston because few people get paid to do humanities PhDs.

My research centres around the literary journal McSweeney's. My interest is developing into what McSweeney's tells us about two separate (but I guess related) fields: 1) literary institutions 2) American cultural production, more broadly. This blog was initially about my PhD but is now a more general thinking space.

See right for my flickr/twitter/delicious feeds, then below for other versions of me.

Email is looceefir on gmail.

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