Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Short Story

Catherine Gander, in an article in the Guardian, suggests that Britain does not give enough honour to the short story format, unlike our friends across the Atlantic. Her comments come in the wake of the Golden Globes success for Ang Lee's film of E. Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain.

Gander reports that the

Irish short fiction writer Frank O'Connor once noted that the difference between the short story and the novel is "the difference between pure and applied storytelling". The short story is the adaptation of the primitive art of communicating experience by telling a tale.

And she goes on to note that
Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, lamented the fall in value of experience, attributing it to dependence upon information as communication. Information, he says, "doesn't survive the moment in which it was new". Narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks: it can live forever.

Gander believes that the reason why the short story is nearly dead in England is because it is mis-marketed, if it is marketed at all. Publishers pitch the short story as "bite-size literature", something that is ideal for modern readers busy with lives, but, suggests Gander, in doing this publishers are missing the point, which is that good short fiction actually requires the reader's time and attention since it asks for interpretation, rather than relying on explanation as a novel does. Gander feels that short fiction "conveys the narrative qualities of our existence by embracing the past, present and future." The short story demands a commitment from its readers because you cannot leave and come back to a short story in the same way that you can an epic, multiple-viewpoint narrative novel such as The Lord of the Rings, or "His Dark Materials".

My own preference in fantasy is for the epic narrative novel, but I've learned to appreciate the skill required of a writer of shorter fiction. In the past year I've read Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes and The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Neil Gamiman's Smoke and Mirrors, Juliet E McKenna's Turns and Chances and Mark Chadbourn's The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, and I have seen for myself the skill they have each deployed in telling a tale and telling it well in a shorter form. I agree with Gander, and with Benjamin and O'Connor before her, that the shorter fiction is a thing of beauty and deserves to be recognised as such in this country, and marketed better than is currently the case.

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