Short stories (1) – learning to love them

Nina MiltonToday novelist and short story writer Nina Milton gives us the first in a series of posts on the fictional form that is the backbone of the Unchained anthology. 

“During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”

Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the 1830’s in his usual, Gothic style, had possibly given us our first definition of a short story. That is, something that can be ‘read at one sitting’.  For me, Poe’s definition is spot on; short stories can demonstrate how diverse, funny, sad, illogical, cruel, rapturous, shocking and mysterious the human experience can be A short story can really ‘hold onto your soul’, as a deeply affecting reading memory. Or, as Alex Keegan says in Short Circuit (Salt Publishing)  a short story is “saying something, one thing about the world.”

Sadly, though, I sometimes wonder if anybody bothers to read short stories– in anthology, collection or even magazines. I imagine them as the poor step-sister of fiction, sitting alone in the ashes while the big ugly sisters doll themselves up for the Booker or Costa Balls. But occasionally, my heart lifts; I’m riding a train or waiting for a dental appointment and spot a someone with a Granta open on their lap, or enrapt in the Women’s Weekly romances.

Even so, on this side of the Atlantic, short stories are becoming increasingly rare in magazines, and collections only interest a tiny section of the book-buying public. The publications that specialize in new short fiction are read mostly by the wannabe writers themselves. There is often no section for short stories in libraries, and in the large Waterstones in the centre of Bristol they are housed on a floor-level shelf in a forgotten corner at the end of the wall lined with novels.

You have to wonder why. Surely the short story is the most convenient variety of fiction for this century, easily transported, quickly read – it can fill a single train journey or the wait for your dental check up. Sadly, it is hoisted on its own petard; a good short story ends all too quickly, a bad one is easily thrown aside – no chance of reading on just to see if it gets better in a few chapters – and by its very nature tends not to fulfill that longing to become intimate with a set of characters or solve the puzzle of a longer plot.

In the US, however, the short story is still loved. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel The Lowland is short-listed for the Mann-Booker this year, rose to fame in the US by winning the 2000 Pulizter Prize with her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.

Take a tip from me; reading a short story twice is the best way to get hooked on them. I’ve had to do that a lot lately, as I’ve been writing one third of a new course for the Open College of the Arts – Writing Short Fiction. I returned to my previously loved short stories and analysed them carefully and was stunned by what was hidden in their depths that I’d missed on first reading. It was like that search for the watch you’ve lost…the gold one that your Gran left you… and finding it the bottom of a deep drawer you’d already rifled through.

Lahiri’s stories are a good example. The Third and Final Continent, from that collection is told in the first person. It starts… “I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name…” The narrator is an elderly man, looking back at his earlier life. It charts events set over several months, in which takes up his first job, marries by arrangement in India, then stays in digs while awaiting the arrival of his wife to the US, where they begin life without consummating their relationship for some weeks. However, despite this extended time line, Lahiri achieves a tight focus by relating the story via specific scenes and charismatic secondary characters and by using a universal theme (the strangeness of new places), a single symbol (the first lunar landing), and a prominent leitmotif (the word splendid!) At the end of the story, the protagonist reaches an ‘epiphany’; that is, he realizes something about his new wife…and his philosophy of life…which he had not before:

Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her chest, and, for the first time since her arrival, I felt sympathy. I remembered my first days  in London, learning how to take the Tube to Russell Square, riding an escalator for the first time, being unable to understand that, when the man cried “piper” it meant “paper,” being unable to decipher, for a whole year, that the conductor said “mind the gap” as the train pulled out of each station. Like me, Mala had traveled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her…..”

What cheered me further were Lahiri’s own words about the construction of this story – where she ‘got her ideas from’, in other words. She used brief memories her father had given her of his own first days in America: “What inspired me to write the story was the juxtaposition of the moon landing, a spectacular landmark in history, and the story of an immigrant’s arrival to a new country. I don’t think I could have written it any other way.” (Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery, Bloomsbury 2004.) In other words, she’d taken the tiny seed of a family recollection, and allowed it to grow and blossom.

So, my recommendation for this day is; read a short story. Pick any one that takes your fancy, and read it. Then put it away and see if you can find out something about the writer, better still their own thoughts about their writing. Thanks to Google, that’s never too difficult nowadays. Finally; read your short story again. Observe how, in the time it takes to reach your station, (or, mercy on us, be called into the dentist’s surgery), it can tug at you, make you re-evaluate things –  how the writer ‘controls your soul’ with with their brief words.

In the MoorsNina’s latest novel and the first in the Shaman Mystery Series is out now from Midnight Ink.

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  1. Erm, sorry but this post feels very wide of the mark. Have you seen the growing number of magazines and journals publishing short stories in the UK and Ireland on Tania Hershman’s website? And the Waterstone’s in the centre of Bristol has a short stories section at the start of their fiction department at the front of the shop and has done for years. Unless they’ve moved it since I was in there last, a couple of weeks ago.
    The UK short story scene is very much alive and growing and has been for the last 5 to 10 years. More festivals, more events, more readers, more publishers. Don’t recognise how you describe at all.

    1. Hi Anna
      As a writer I agree – there is a great buzz about short stories in the writing community helped greatly by people like Tania, publishers like Salt Publishing and the Bristol Short Story Prize. I’m not sure though that they are making a real impression on the book market as a whole. But there are certainly glimmers of light, especially with new ‘portable’ formats and publishing models like Ether Books. Let’s hope it all keeps going. Ali B

  2. Short stories are everywhere but we fail to recognize them. Every episode of a sitcom or a TV series is a short story. Most feature films are the length of a long short story – a reason why many are unhappy with dramatizations of their favourite novels.
    Great short stories are somewhere in between poems and novels and need to be read again and again.
    Short stories and flash fiction are ideally suited to the digital age.

  3. Hello Paul, thanks for joining us.
    You are right of course about the story existing in other media and I think we can learn a lot from film scripts whether or not they began as books.
    Hoping you might be able to join us on Oct 23rd if you are in the area?
    Ali B

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