Mostly (not) on McSweeney's!

A blog for my academic ideas, more or less.

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!

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5 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    I’ll have to get you to recommend me some short story authors/anthologies next time I see you, Kevin.

    I worry that my preference for short stories and shorter novels is a result of a narrowing attention span, but I do find reading a story whole really satisfying.

    I also like that exclamation mark.

  2. Kevin says:

    You can come round and peruse my bookshelves any time.

    One theme I intend to develop during this year is the theory that short stories should be more appropriate for our time than novels, because they demand less distraction from our busy lives. I think there’s definitely a connection to explore, but some people seem to think it signals the potential for short stories (and, even more perversely, poetry) to democratise literature. And that’s daft.

  3. stuart evers says:

    The Ford is a great introduction. Have you read Richard Russo’s to Richard Yates’ Collected Stories? One of the most moving and inspiring I know. Also, if you have time on the course, would recommend Beth Nugent, Jayne Anne Philips and Nathan Englander in amongst all incredible choice.

    Sounds like I’d love to take your course. It does indeed sound like a lot of fun.

  4. danholloway says:

    I would love to see you stir novellas into the mix and ask whether your students consider them long shorts or short novels or, what? Because I have a feeling our approach to the novella helps us to make those generalisations about shorts and novels. And it is – thank heaven – growing on the tables of Waterstones thanks to some wonderul newbies like Peirene Press. Our first two books at eight cuts gallery press are novellas (not in translation either, albeit one is set in the US, the other Hong Kong) and have been met by reviewers with precisely zero stigma.

    You could do worse by your students than give them three works by Milan Kundera – his shorts, Laughable Loves; the novel Immortality; and one of his more recent novellas such as Slowness – and have them make generalisations about why and whether these are three different formats, two, or all the same. And then throw in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and see what on earth they make of that. Each is the epitome of what it does, but studying them together will make students question why they are assigned different titles

  5. Kevin says:

    Stuart – I have a version of Yates’s collected stories but it doesn’t have a Russo intro! Damn. I use ‘The Best of Everything’ in another class to talk about free indirect discourse – you’ve sparked me to think about using a Yates in a class to show off.

    Dan – I think I’m going to start my next class with a discussion about ‘short’. Bring in some flash fiction and then mention some novellas, to get them thinking about what short stories achieve, and the potential boundary between a novel and a short story. The class doesn’t have enough time to bring in all that Kundera, but I might prod them in that direction, thanks!

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