I feel a bit of a misery for having written a list of blunders found in short stories. Such lists are not unusual and often repeat what others have said before. However it is much harder to talk about the qualities that enthral and delight, that transport us to unknown places and stir the emotions. What is that literary flavour beyond sweet and sour, the umami that makes me want to keep on reading?
1. A sense of perfection
There is a difference between evidence of raw talent and a finished product. Without practice and the unrestrained commitment that Pavarotti put in, for example, he would still have been Luciano, the guy with a great voice but unknown to the world. It is the combination of great ability, dedication and unqualified commitment that results in that feeling like being in a jet plane when it goes for take-off, when his voice at full power takes flight, and carries us with him.
A lot of people sing in the shower, a lot of people write stories. Not everyone has the voice, for a start, but equally not everyone gives all. Sentences are not well worked; narrative is somewhat choked off, restrained.
What is wonderful is when a gift for writing is combined with technical perfection and a free flowing narrative. When it succeeds, there is nothing laboured, all is like a swan sailing across a pond, seemingly without effort. It’s not because Pavarotti could hit a high note. Actually, many of us could hit that note. It’s the way he hits it. Clearly we don’t want half measures, we don’t want errors. But the sense of a short story is not about what we don’t want. It’s about what we desire, what life itself seldom offers, a sense of perfection.
2. A sense of adventure
This is not about secret agents, bandits, pirates, cowboys, though they are also part of it, it’s something to do with a journey, danger, hazard, perhaps conflict.
It happens that space travellers, cowboys, romantic maidens, elves and so on go on journeys, encounter hazards and conflict, but seldom will they succeed in taking us with them. No, the sense of adventure is to do with a feeling that a real person is in a real location, and we are with them, somewhere we might know, which is interesting, or somewhere we don’t know, which can be even more interesting, and it’s uncertain what is about to happen.
If there is a nagging thought that this is routine, that we know all this, then we fall into the “I have a life of my own” trap. As the woman says in The Ice Storm, when her lover starts to talk about his work, “I have a husband.” What I seek is the feeling of landscape, of views across townscapes, of skies and the travel against weight, not weightless, where the progress interacts with a new environment. There must be people to meet, to find out about, an adventurer alone is a hard case. He or she had better be thinking about others or else we enter the dead zone of solipsism.
3. A sense of inspiration
You could call this a sense of interest, a sense of importance, a sense of significance, a sense of relevance. It’s the feeling that we’re onto something. Whatever you call it, it relies on a theme of sufficient weight. We’re busy people. We have our own lives. Unless a story is of vital interest, why spend the time to read it? It must draw us in from the first paragraph.
However, we are resistant to being told what to think. We won’t stand for it. The miracle of fiction is how it enables us to share another’s vision, see things through another’s eyes for a spell, to enter a partly hallucinatory or dreamlike state. I suggest that this can occur when the writer has been inspired.
So what is it? Sometimes inspiration, like procreation, entails the fusion of two elements. You may think of these as spark and fuel. The spark is very small but active and the fuel is large and full of potential but static. The fuel is your theme, perhaps something that’s been bugging you for some time. The spark is your angle, something trivial that you realise can be combined with your theme to bring it to life. That is your inspiration.
Hitchcock coined the term “the McGuffin” for something trivial that he used to build his suspenseful films around. For example, in North By Northwest and The Thirty-Nine Steps people chase around after something but we really don’t care about the actual object of their pursuit. How many can even remember what it was?
Writing directly to a main theme runs the risk of becoming aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic, perhaps polemical. The trick is to write a story seemingly about the trivial one of your two elements, against a background of the main concern. This allows you to deal with what’s bugging you, without seeming to talk about it at all. Without a theme, no matter how brilliant your writing, you will lose the reader. “All spark” is a bore.
Misdirection is as useful in fiction as in conjuring. Come to think of it, fiction is a form of conjuring.
4. A sense of humour
The only place this occurs is in serious writing. Anything that tries to be funny is anathema. If you take any of the well-known comic writers, or writers whose work encompasses humour, you will find that it is all presented in a seemingly serious manner. The stories of Waugh, Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, George Saunders, J. P. Donleavy, Saki, James Thurber, Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris are presented with a straight face. Even Jerome K. Jerome and George or was it the other Grossmith brother. The story is king.
All humour is incidental. In spite of ourselves, in spite of the author himself or herself, we find we are concerned with the theme, delighted by the inspiration, enthralled by the adventure and then to leaven the mixture, there is something funny. It may be when the author relents from the story momentarily, for example when Mohsin Hamid has a one-word sentence, “Yum” following on from a description of the cause of dysentery. It’s something to bring you in further with the author and to remind you before you lose touch, lose heart, that this is shared experience, we are on a shared expedition of discovery. We are not alone.
While the author is conveying the story, we know only that it is an account, but with the addition of humour and later perhaps pathos, we know that we are in fact reading together, reading alongside the author and other readers. There is something more exquisite in a shared experience, (and it doesn’t take much imagination to find a suitable metaphor for that), the joy is redoubled. We might not know what the author thought about certain things, but we’re pretty sure we’re on the same wavelength and that others will be too, when the sense of humour shines through.
5. A sense of suspense
We return to Hitchcock and recall that he said his biggest mistake was to have the bomb go off in Blackmail. As long as the bomb hasn’t gone off there is suspense. Yes, we want to know what happens next but only if something is at stake. If nothing is at stake, I couldn’t care less what happens next. Salesmen have a mnemonic: ABC – Always Be Closing. The worst result in sales theory is a continuation. With fiction, it’s the opposite: ABC – Always Be Continuing, and the worst result is closure. The urge to settle for an ending and declare the story closed is like a siren calling the writer, the captain of the story, onto fatal reefs.
6. A sense of wonder
This is what we’re left with after reading a great short story. It leaves us thinking, literally wondering. There is a completeness to a short story but it is not the completeness of satiation, of finality, it’s the completeness of entry or exit, a door that opens to wonder. The beginning is a door to a secret garden and the end is the same door. We can re-enter. Somebody (?) described the sonnet as a machine for thinking. Maybe we could describe the short story as a machine for wondering.
These categories are arbitrary. I might add more later, I might change their contents. I could as easily invoke the theatrical maxim, “Make them laugh, make them cry and scare the crap out of them”. I only wanted to describe what it is that I like in a short story. Having typed this far, I find I’m none the wiser. I still couldn’t tell you why the stories in The Magic Barrel are so sublime, or Dubliners. I don’t know what it is Denis Johnson does, or Annie Proulx, or Chekhov, or William Trevor, etc. The list is long. I am in awe of them and all great short story writers. I don’t give a damn about the novel. There, I’ve said it. (Actually, it’s not true, I love reading novels.) As near as I can describe, what I desire is a sense of perfection and a sense of adventure. The rest of the headings and comments are tentative.