shining the spotlight on short story collections
In honour of National Short Story Month over at the Emerging Writers Network (and just because we love short stories) , I thought I’d bring you a selection of the responses by authors The Short Review interviewed to the question “What does the word ‘story’ mean to you?”.
Quite a few said it was a very difficult question. For some it means nothing, for others it is life itself.
The order is purely alphabetical, I’ve got as far as the Bs. There will be more! Click on the names to read the full author interviews. Here goes:
To me story is fundamental and defines us as human beings. What happens next is the heart of the story and the pattern of all life which is a beginning, a middle and and an end. It is also the great mystery since no human being can ever know “what happens next.
So many things, but due to my upbringing, I prefer those that are rich in the oral storytelling tradition. The best ones are the ones you get lost in: multilayered, babbling and chaotic, not necessary neat and linear. If you think about it, when you are sitting in a café or a pub telling a story, it seldom goes from point to point: the little asides are the best parts. Stories are often desperate things, dying to be voiced and heard — nothing calm and organised about that. Although I admire people who can write succinctly and in an orderly fashion while still maintaining a good level of excitement. That’s something to strive for.
This question is no softball. Stumped, I just did what I used to do when I was stumped in college, which is look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was no help, so I’m on my own. To me, a story is the relation of a brief, epiphanal (or at least very important and pivotal) moment in a character’s life. And the stuff you need around that to understand why the moment is so important. That’s in the literature sense. In a more general sense, a story is a narrative told for a specific reason (that reason can be to entertain, to impart a moral, to make the teller seem smart, to humiliate someone else, to teach, to ingratiate the teller to the tellee, etc.).
I think of something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it.
Anything that holds your interest as a reader.
A tough question! The feeling of holding onto a sparkling handrail into the dark.
Nothing, really, other than serving as a placeholder term for a certain kind of literary experience, which is itself as essentially variable as a medieval bestiary.
Annihilation, mystification, unmasking, abstaining … anything but entertainment.
Something that is told and has a magic. Something that reaches out and holds because of the events it offers and follows. Something that offers both the fearful and comforting, though always there is a reassurance that the story exists, is told. I have heard such amazing stories from Inuit and other indigenous peoples, in their homes, around fires, in tents at night. These seemed to be the archetypes. Yet I know that there is a story in so many places, in a multitude of forms.
It means why am I alive, why will I die, make me laugh, why are things this way, help me escape myself, don’t let me escape myself, lie to me, show me how I lie to myself, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe the things I remember are now only real to me.
Oh, a lot of things, but I think the best stories end with haunting, either because of their profundity or their emotional resonance. The desire for these things—for meaning and feeling—maybe drives narratives into existence, a desire shared by the character(s), readers, and the author. That coming together of these entities around wanting something, desperately and urgently, gives reading and writing (for me) its charged intensity. The writer Douglas Glover says this of the short story, “Literature is a way of thinking in which you think by pushing your characters through a set of actions (testing that character in a series of scenes which involve the same conflict).” I think Aristotle said something profound about a story having a beginning, middle, and end. Joseph Campbell discovered in his reading the ONE way to tell a story, the Monomyth, which Kurt Vonnegut summarized as “The hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble.” “Separation—initiation—return,” writes Campbell, “might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” In describing the narrative pattern of journeys, such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Clift and Clift argue that stories work to “help one make sense of the boredom before and the terror during each journey.” Out of these ideas, a very simple, workable definition of plot and narrative structure emerges: As the result of some inciting incident, desire (the beginning of a story) creates actions (the story’s middle) leading to an outcome (the end).
“Vastly, and inexplicably underrated, form of prose.” I love short stories and I just don’t understand why the publishing industry, and indeed many readers too, look down upon them. In these times of multi-media saturation and short attention spans surely the short story is THE medium of our times! Surely, just being able to dip in and out of a book whenever you have a few minutes to spare is the way we should all be reading now? Yet stories continue to be seen as the immature, less-devloped sibling to the novel, or worse, as a training ground for aspiring novelists. In my opinion, a good short story collection should always be superior to a good novel – the sheer range of narrative voices that can be used, the variety of characters, the number of ideas that can be explored…. Then again, while I don’t write genre fiction I come from a genre background, so I see a short story as having “a point.” When you read a story by Philip.K. Dick or Ray Bradbury or Clive Barker there is a definite purpose to the story – it is complete in and of itself. I wonder if the reason many people don’t like reading short stories is because they read stories that are essentially notes for abandoned novels masquerading as “mood pieces” or half-formed vignettes pretending to be “character studies.” This is a failing I often see in more “literary” short story collections, and it annoys me intensely. A story should be complete in itself, whether it be 1000, 5000 or 20000 words long. It isn’t just “a short piece of prose” that isn’t long enough to be padded up into a novel, nor is it just a single, clever idea. That isn’t a short story. That’s a vignette, or even, dare I say, a joke.
How would you answer the question?