Tag: short stories

Review of Short Stories – Snapshots of Life, Morality and the Complex Human Landscape of Emotion

by Guest Blogger, Rebecca Wilson

Throughout my life in education so far, I have received the same message – that ‘high quality’ literature lies exclusively within the academically compiled lists of ‘classics’ which frequently feature lengthy pagination and fairly distant publication dates.

The majority of these ‘classics’ consist of reams and reams of plot, description and deeper meaning. However, the sheer length of many of these ‘classics’ has (arguably) rather ironically led some of them to fall into the trap many writers face – maintaining balance.

Although I am by no means advocating that all longer stories lack balance, as you lengthen a story, the danger of this pitfall increases, and the deeper meanings in works can sometimes be swamped by excessive description or other forms of irrelevant minor detail.

This is where short stories have a unique advantage over longer stories. This trap is often much easier to avoid.

So why do short stories not have the same claim to the literary spotlight?

Don’t be deceived by their length, these works can offer a lot more than you may initially think…

Punchy, Powerful Messages…
With Clarity!

When reading short stories, readers are arguably less inclined to rake through dozens of pages before uncovering any implicit messages. The power of these messages is thus less likely to be sacrificed or difficult to extract, as is the case with some of history’s most hailed literary classics. A key example of this in my opinion would be Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although a classic story, and one which I adore, the important messages it carries such as those of the value of friendship, loyalty and teamwork are often lost amongst the endless description of the vast landscape and history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Although I can admire Tolkien’s expansive imagination, in his ability to build a world in such minute detail, the level of this detail included in the story can sometimes make reading the trilogy an arduous and lengthy task, rather than a singular source of enjoyable fantasy escapism.

Quality not Quantity
(of Pages and Profit!)

It’s no hidden secret that many classic novels, such as Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles often owe their length to the practice of serialisation and being ‘paid by the letter’. Here, the creativity vs commerce debate begins to flare up again, although it is often difficult to judge whether novels entirely owe their length to this cause or not. The endless sub plots and lengthy descriptions evident in classics such as DickensGreat Expectations can most certainly frame many classics as guilty of this in many respects, whereas shorter stories can often pack unique punches some longer stories can find, owing to their length, much harder to achieve.

Travelling and mental exhaustion

We’ve all experienced this. We’ve all been on a holiday, or a long journey, or simply sat at home ‘relaxing’, picked up a book and after a certain amount of time been more focused on getting to a numerical target rather than reading the text itself. Just picking up a book that has 400+ pages can be a bit daunting, with your brain telling you “this is going to take forever”, and thus, in this mindset, it does. And then you procrastinate from reading it, and alas, five months later, you’re only 200 pages into reading Vanity Fair (and yes, I am speaking from personal experience here). The book is abandoned, you grumble something about time wasting, and move on to a different book (not a classic this time, seeing as you’re holding a grudge for a bit). This is why shorter stories are simply perfect for the weary traveller who just wants something interesting to dip into for a short while, and why short stories can often maintain reader interest for a longer amount of time.

Skill of the Writer in World and Character Building – in Such a Short Space of Time!

This is a skill that is very difficult to master. Longer stories enable writers to gradually build up characters and thus have the safety net of future events in the story to fall back on should the development of a certain aspect be sparse in one section of the novel. Short story writers do not have this safety net, and so their ability to craft worlds and characters in such short spaces of time, that are interesting and sufficiently developed to keep readers engaged should be celebrated as a true indication of artistic talent.

Exploration of Ideas Not Suitable for Longer Work

Some ideas that are captured in short stories, such as singular emotions or experiences, can be very high intensity or simply not suitable to be explored in a feature length novel. To shorten a story can often be an efficient way of ensuring intensity remains high, concentration is less likely to fade and allows unique ideas to be explored in isolation, rather than being mentioned briefly amongst a tangled web of plot, description and characterisation. To cite an example, in Lesley Atherton’s collection of short stories Can’t Sleep Won’t Sleep Vol.1, there is a fascinating short story titled ‘Conflict’. This is my favourite of the collection, because it explores one singular emotion in such great depth, and just makes you, well, think!

And that’s simply to name a few unique benefits reading shorter stories can offer you. So why not read some yourself and see these ideas in action? Lesley Atherton’s series of short stories titled Can’t Sleep Won’t Sleep currently has five volumes for you to delve into, and the series most certainly embodies the ideas listed above surrounding the unfairly marginalised value short stories possess within an ever-expanding modern literary landscape.

#lesleyfridayreads, #can’tsleepwon’tsleep, #scottmartinproductions, #rebeccawilson, #lesleyatherton, #shortstory, #shortstories

‘Light Reading Stories vol 1’ (by Peter McGeehan)

This is the first of Peter’s short story books published under the title of ‘Light Reading’ – but is the second I have read. How typical of me to do everything in the incorrect order.

As per Peter’s second volume, this book is chock-full of stories – some thought-provoking, and others amusing. And it is the humour that comes through everything in this very varied collection. I particularly liked the bravery of the school children who began a campaign against corporal punishment, achieving a happy conclusion.  This story is one of the longer pieces in the book, but the shorter pieces are good too – some 100-word stories, and other tales of post-military life, post-séance hallucinatory experiences (with very real and disturbing results), thoughts of hats, the weirdness of an overheard conversation, the tale of a weekend away, missionaries coming to earth, and some recollections of unexpected and charming travels.
Peter’s character emerges effortlessly within his writing, especially in his piece about the council meeting with the attendees’ silly names. Both Peter and I know from experience the accuracy of his imaginings, though Peter’s street names are much sillier and his character names more Dickensian than those I personally experienced.
Peter also includes a traditional ghost story about a journalist visiting a haunted house (with a twist ending) and other stories that are far less traditional – such as the one about the the srenum niarb, microscopic organisms who invade the brain of every new born.
But it’s the pathos of these pieces that sticks with me – the reluctant retirement of an enthusiastic boxer, the life-journey of a car, the morning ritual of a surprising old man, and, very touchingly, the sad story of story of Pompeii.
I love how Peter shares with his readers and trusts us to take care of his inner thoughts.
Well done, Peter, and keep writing.

Thoughts on Short Stories

Sometimes wonderful writing creeps up on you by stealth.  It may seem simplistic, perhaps overly so, or even naïve – or primitive.  But then something changes, perhaps in the reader’s perception of what the writer is trying to say, or perhaps in their understanding of the text, but something definitely changes.

This experience has happened to me on a great number of occasions.  One of the first times I remember, when I was a young teenager, was while reading a Pan Book of Horror Stories.  One story, now almost universally panned by critics, was massively fascinating to me.  It was called ‘The Speciality of the House’ by Stanley Ellin. One online critic says ‘Rather a lengthy short story for such a thin concept. The twist ending can be seen miles away as we follow 2 characters who frequent a very little known restaurant where they serve up such amazing food that all the patrons become addicted to it. All the customers are regulars and now and again one of them disappears. You can guess why. Really dull story.’ 

I understand what the critic is saying, I really do.  However, I can’t help thinking that it’s all horses for courses.  I was a young reader and did not know for sure that the shock ending speciality of the house would be human flesh.  I had an inkling, of course, but I didn’t care.  I liked the writing, I liked the suspense and there was something about the whole story that really stuck with me over the years.  And I feel defensive of it.  I don’t understand why something has to be shocking or surprising in order to be a satisfying read.  I don’t believe for one moment that it does.  I am a realist!

I no longer own a copy of the ‘2nd Book of Pan Horror Stories’, but I know that the story was only a few short pages in length – perhaps 20 at most.  I also know the writing was not poetic, metaphoric, challenging or in any way outstanding, literary or brilliant.  Nevertheless, I loved it because it gave me a feeling of anything being possible behind closed doors.  I remember a few years later on, I met a friend for lunch in Manchester.  It was the first time I’d been to a restaurant without the safety of an accompanying adult.  I remember thinking of this Stanley Ellin story and wondering what I was eating in the mild, spicy Indian sauce.  I watched the kitchen doors, intrigued and horrified by the prospect of what might be – in equal measure. 

The short story, by a successful mystery writer, was adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock Presents… TV programme.  It was changed massively, and didn’t have the same appeal as the original story did. Perhaps it just got me.  Right place. Right time. 

The writing in this story is not special, and it isn’t a story I would recommend to squeamish readers or those who demand a happy ending in their fiction, but for an adolescent with a bit of an odd need to be delighted by the macabre, it worked. More than anything, of all the books I read as a youngster, this one stayed with me.

There’s another book that’s stayed with me (Fay Weldon’s ‘Polaris & Other Stories’) and both these books together prove how unashamedly downmarket my reading tastes can be.  Another book of short stories, Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Illustrated Man’ stayed with me too.  Fay Weldon’s ‘Polaris’ however, was discovered by me when I was politically active in the anti-nuclear movement, and the cover story was interesting for that reason alone.  I’m just going to say a few words about another one of the stories in this short story compilation.  It is called ‘The Bottom Line and the Sharp End’.  Two characters, Avril the seedy and brassy blonde nightclub singer, and Helen the classy hairdresser are its only characters.  Avril has been visiting Helen’s salon sporadically for many years.  This time, an ageing Avril again wants Helen to bleach her hair. The first bleaching doesn’t take properly and  Avril insists on Helen trying again using a stronger solution.  Helen does, and goes into shock when Avril’s hair falls out.  This leads to the women sharing a couple of home truths and then to Helen visiting Avril at a new club – Mayfair now, rather than Soho.  She sings very well with a ‘coarse and melancholy’ voice.  Her new bald look was the making of her.  It did not make her look glamorous.  However, it made her look “important, as if her sufferings and her experience might be of considerable interest to others, and the customers certainly paid attention, were silent when she sang, and clapped when she’d finished”.

After the set, Avril speaks to Helen.  She says “Remember what I told you about the bottom line and the sharp end?  Nothing lasts, so you’d better have as much as you can, while you can.  And in the end, there’s only you and only them, and not what they think of you, but what you think of them”.  The most interesting thing about this is that it isn’t quite comprehensible to me.  I have no idea of what Avril is trying to say.  Success from adversity.  Making the best of one’s lot. Belief in oneself.  I don’t know.  And that’s why I find it so intriguing.

I love short stories.  They can do so much in such a condensed form!