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Monday 31 May 2010

Short story appraisal - 01

I have a rather large home library of unread books. They’re unread because I tend to keep buying new books before I’ve read the earlier purchases. My excuse is that books have a short shelf life in bookstores…

My curse is that I’m interested in many subjects so I collect non-fiction and fiction books within a great variety of disciplines and genres. From time to time, I’ll pull off my shelves a book or two I haven’t got round to reading; many of these are short story anthologies. As a writer of short stories, I like to immerse myself in this particular art-form, in an attempt at avoiding any staleness of approach in my own writing. As they say, writers should read.

A long time ago, in the early 1970s, I picked up a paperback entitled Modern Short Stories (1965), primarily because it contained ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ by James Thurber and stories by Ray Bradbury, Jack London and Jack Schaefer. It’s designed as an educational tome with an interesting Introduction and Notes at the end. The editor is S H Burton, MA. If you write short stories, then it stands to reason that you should read them.

Encapsulated, the introduction explains what a short story should contain. When the story ends, something that matters has happened; there has been movement. Plot in the story imposes a pattern. In addition, the writer is concerned with his characters and with his setting. And, finally and most significantly, ‘the short story involves values of one kind or another’.

Burton sums up very well, that ‘values embodied in the story will usually be expressed through the plot, the characters, the setting – and by the way in which the story is written.’ The style will be the guide as to the writer’s sincerity. ‘The best writers try to work unobtrusively, presenting their view of life through characters involved…’ It’s interesting that the editor labels the first two tales in this collection, ‘Jeremy Rodock’ by Jack Schaefer and ‘To Build a Fire by Jack London’ as ‘adventure stories’, not westerns.

In conclusion, Burton spells out what should be obvious to the writer. Short stories are of limited length, originally aimed at periodicals that have only so much space on offer. This imposed economy of words means that words must not be wasted. Every word must count in creating the world of the characters involved. Each word must ‘purposefully contribute to the overall effect’. A novelist can apply equal weight to plot, character and setting; a short story writer doesn’t have that luxury so must choose which to lay emphasis upon, the other two simply supplying just enough to maintain the illusion of reality. So a short story can be about character, or plot or the setting itself; yet in the final analysis it should illuminate an aspect of the human condition. That aim requires craftsmanship and dedication.

Next post, I’ll take a look at the first two stories in this book.


Paul Bishop said...

I too buy books before I'm done reading the ones I've already bought. Somehow, I've ended up with over fifty books on my Kindle -- and that's just counting the ones I've bought and not the @!@*&load of free e-books I've downloaded.

Still, I just like having something for every mood, and there are far worse obsessions.

Nik Morton said...

Indeed there are, Bish. It's great to be able to pluck off the shelf - or out of Kindle - a book to suit your mood. In my collection of series, I still have some unread - whether that's an Adam Hall, a Bernard Cornwell or a John Gardner, for example. It's good to be able to choose - especially since many books can't be found in bookshops. My 'Assignment Kilimanjaro' is a download from Amazon, BUT it's an erotic thriller (set in WWI east Africa) so will not be to many people's taste, even if it is filled with character and considerable research...

Barbara Martin said...

I loved those Walter Mitty stories by James Thurber.

I had more books than I could read last year, and when I had to move most of them ended up at the library because I couldn't take them with me. These were books I had picked up at book stores on the discount bins: fiction and non-fiction. Only my research books for my ongoing WIPS accompanied me (and the ARCs).

Now that I'm resettled into more permament quarters I've been frequenting the book bins again and picked up a couple. I'm looking forward to a speculative fiction anthology of shorts.