Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘hemingway

“Would you please please please please please please please stop
talking?”

I’m going to take heed of what she asks here in the sense that I will attempt to talk about Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story Hills Like White Elephants without including any spoilers about what the man and the woman are talking about.

I say this in full recognition that taking such precautions for anyone coming to a short story blog to read about a story analysed on probably every Creative Writing university degree course in the English-speaking world, brings to mind the time two women walked into a charity second-hand shop I was in last summer: “Ooh, look, Mum,” said one, pointing over to the music section, “Queen’s Greatest Hits!” I thought, how can that be exciting? There are people who care about music and some of them like Queen; then there are people who don’t care about music, and Queen have them covered too. If you like Queen, then surely to God you’ve had time and opportunity in your life to get hold of their Greatest Hits? Similarly, if you know anything about Hills Like White Elephants, reason would suggest that the undisclosed but “awfully simple”, “perfectly natural”, “perfectly simple” procedure under discussion, omerta may no longer be a requirement.

Nevertheless, I will steer around the matter simply because, having used it in creative writing teaching with undergraduates, I’ve seen that an isolated reading produces a range of interpretations as to the subtext of the central conversation. This, of course, means that two people will have the same words before them yet be reading two completely different stories. We might suppose that the strategy in storytelling is to have the reader understand what that story is. Of course, you may wish to leave certain matters open to conjecture and debate – what explains this behaviour? is the narrator as reliable as s/he would like us to believe? what happens next? – but you don’t expect the plot summary to be a multiple choice.

Actually, I don’t believe there is great room for dispute about Hemingway’s plot here: close attention to the emotional ebb and flow of the conversation shows it not to be a blur of Dadaist abstraction in the least, and further observation of the landscape either side of the railway bar, in which the two travelling Americans drink beer and Anis while waiting for their connecting train to Madrid, should dissolve any mystery. However, the very fact that the sparsity of more definitive signposts leads some readers to very different interpretations tells us a great deal about the remarkable quality of Hemingway’s writing here, working in the 3rd person objective voice he could very well have patented.

We are with these two people for just shy of three quarters of an hour and all we have of them is everything they say. Our reading is therefore a real time activity. We respond as we would if observing and eavesdropping random people in our normal lives. In this way, we can see how the café setting (as, despite the beer and the fire water, we’re entitled to think of it, this being mainland Europe) is fundamental to the authenticity of the couple’s conversational iceberg. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s dabbed handkerchief in the Milford station café in Brief Encounter is a good indicator of the sort of protocol into which we’re entering in this environment: a place of non-belonging, in a pocket of restricted time, anonymous but under scrutiny of all those around who have nothing to do but wait and watch, the limits to which emotions can be expressed and truths can be articulated are all too apparent. In the case of the Madrid-bound Americans, there is the additional context that they are locked, together, within a de facto exile’s experience. The place they are in now is not a home, nor a home from home, nor even a destination. The type of relaxation available in the Central Perk model of Third Space establishments – a social space that can intersect with the work sphere; a public space in which to express a suitably modulated private identity – cannot be attempted here. Instead, we have enforced camaraderie and a mutual illiteracy when it comes to reading one another’s signals:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the
felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the
girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun
and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have
doesn’t prove anything.”

The talk replaces thoughts or one’s talk tramples on the other’s thoughts; in this, they occupy a similar space to Zoe Lambert’s squabbling interrailers in two of her stories in The War Tour. They drink together and the setting gives them a place to do this but those of us who can eavesdrop in both English and Spanish (and, by the magic of Hemingway’s decision to use English when Spanish is spoken, this means all of us) recognise that there are barriers and dependency issues there, as he has to do the talking for both of them:

The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and
put them down on the damp felt pads. “The train comes in five minutes,” she
said.
“What did she say?” asked the girl.
“That the train is coming in five minutes.”
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.

Earlier, Hemingway jump-cuts through the sequence in which the man orders beer and then Anis del Toro and the woman brings the drinks over. He leaves in everything that’s said. Everything else that happens is silence, just as every conversation on every restaurant first date, or during every long-term couple’s rare bout of face time, is suspended when there is a member of the waiting staff hovering over the table. The couple’s conversation is not guarded because they are busy constructing a rabbit warren of metaphors and codes. They talk like this, in the situation they are in, because so would you. And when she strafes him with pleases to get him to stop talking, a nugget of dialogue that, out of context, seems stylised to the point of absurdity, can actually be appreciated as the one moment of unstoppable emotional honesty in the entire scene.

The conversation will pick up again, though, on the train, and then along the Gran Via or wherever they are headed. There is no obvious epiphany for the couple in Hills Like White Elephants. As we polish off the anis we’ve been sure we’ve been drinking, and set to hauling the luggage we just know has been sitting at our feet, the epiphany – that we’ve been drawn entirely into the scene as fellow customers – belongs to us.

Paris is old enough not to be fooled by the same old lines. For every lovestruck idiot who washes up at a café table and sees a city built for romance – and romantic fiction – there’s a clear-eyed realist on the Metro who recognises the city of La Haine, of the Engrenages (Spiral) series, which are the spiritual descendants of Gerard Depardieu’s hard-boiled Police, of the bourgeois paranoia in Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden). It may not be all about Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron walking in step along the banks of the Seine; Audrey Hepburn rhyming ‘Montmartre’ with ‘Sartre’ courtesy of Ira Gershwin in Funny Face; or about dishevelled intellectuals chatting through the night in films by Erich Rohmer or Richard Linklater; or even Michelin-starred rats…

Nonetheless, the enchanting, captivating, romantic Paris is an eternal verity of fiction, and Woody Allen is a film-maker who is comfortable with eternal verities. He used a Greek chorus in one of his films, Mighty Aphrodite, which is about as eternal you can get in the dramatic arts. Allen’s name comes with its own Greek chorus these days, whether commenting on the publicity that flared around his private life for a period in the 1990s, the truth/fiction blur associated with the younger women he may marry, kiss on screen or simply cast for others to kiss, or adopting a position on his film-making capabilities as he continues to release roughly a film a year, rarely (apart from 2009’s Whatever Works) returning to his comic heartland of New York. Against these debates, we risk losing sight of the work Allen has been building up for about 60 years. Including works in production, he has written 45 films, only ceding the director’s chair to somebody else for two of them. Since talking pictures arrived, has there been another great, or very good, film-maker who has made as many – often very good and sometimes great – films as that?

As unique a cinematic figure as Allen is, though, it’s important to recognise that film is a medium for which he had to adapt an already established voice as a stand-up performer. Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, even though his work is self-evidently steeped in a love of cinema, his first instincts are driven by the pen, not the camera. Hence, instead of doing the film-maker thing and construct distinctive projects or franchises to encase his ideas, he’ll do the writer thing and explore, develop and often re-cycle tropes around which the individual films take shape. This is one reason why A Twenties Memory, an enjoyably daft short story idea published in the 1971 collection, Getting Even, gets to feed, forty years later, into Allen’s most successful film from his recent ‘European tour’ period: Midnight In Paris. More fundamentally, I think there is an argument to be made that the writer’s eye Allen brings to his film-making, and indeed his comedy, is specifically that of a short story writer.

Midnight In Paris can barely be called an adaptation of A Twenties Memory; the screenwriting Oscar it was awarded this year was in the Original Screenplay category. What it owes the story – which touches down in Chicago, the South of France, Italy and Kenya before passing through Paris en route to Spain – is the conceit of being a friend and companion to Modernism’s most celebrated artists and writers. The film achieves this through a deft insertion of a what if? sci-fi device into the familiar portrait of the protagonist, at odds with the here and now, and trapped within an unsatisfactory relationship. For Owen Wilson’s anxious screenwriter, whose holiday in Paris is courtesy of the conservative parents of his materialistic, WASP fiancée (Rachel McAdam), and whose hankering after the 1920s jazz age becomes a completely different proposition when he finds himself picked up in a cab by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we have previously had, in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s downtrodden movie-loving housewife, ill-treated by her brutal husband Danny Aiello, and shown a magical alternative when Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol character steps out of the cinema screen. It’s Mr Benn for grown-ups, engaged with the human story that emerges under these circumstances, less so with the technicalities that brought them about.

In A Twenties Memory, there is no time-travelling device. The narrative starts with the assumption that this is a memoir of time spent in the company of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Manolete, Dali, Matisse and the whole crazy gang. It’s a blancmange of a piece, stringing together one-liners that play on the personality cults and “I was there when…” name-dropping of the literary or showbiz memoir writer seeking immortality by association. The legend of Hemingway’s fondness for brawling forms a slender running joke, with the narrator having his nose broken at regular junctures, and the prose format allows the wordplay and more subtle gags room to stow themselves away in the text the way they couldn’t in performance:

That year I went to Paris a second time to talk with a thin, nervous European composer with aquiline profile and remarkably quick eyes who would someday be Igor Stravinsky and then, later, his best friend. I stayed at the home of Man and Sting Ray and Salvador Dali joined us for dinner several tunes and Dali decided to have a one-man show which he did and it was a huge success, as one man showed up and it was a gay and fine French winter.

The film is at least a zabaglione – as light as the story but with more of an intoxicating effect. Wilson’s Gil finds the romance lacking in his modern life when he meets Picasso and Hemingway’s sometime mistress, the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This sets up an interesting little essay as Gil’s obsession with the jazz age dislocates him from his own time, whereas Adriana, whom Gil believes to be living through the most monumental period in artistic history, surrounded by the greatest minds, is herself caught in an unrequited nostalgia for the Paris of La Belle Époque when the Post-Impressionists held sway. That the film’s resolution is located in this intellectual hall of mirrors, and doesn’t rely upon Gil performing some Herculanean mission to transcend the boundaries of time in order to be with Adriana forever, tells me that Allen’s storytelling revolves around the beguiling notion – the comic idea that may be laced with tragedy; the dramatic idea that can ultimately be shrugged off as just another of life’s episodes. The latter is definitely the case in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which also offers an over-thinking American tourist (Rebecca Hall) a surprising confrontation with old Europe, though this time with no magic portals. Broadway Danny Rose, Melinda and Melinda and Sweet and Lowdown, meanwhile, showcase the yarn-spinning aspect of Allen’s writing. The joy is in the telling, even if that goes nowhere, as in the short story The Whore of Mensa, in which the brilliant comic idea of a call girl racket whereby men pay for intellectual stimulation from widely-read professionals is played out as standard pulp hardboiled fiction. Reading Woody Allen, in print, stand-up or film, as a composer of short stories gives us a new muscle with which to respond to his work.

Even if none of it is still as funny as the guy slipping on the giant banana skin in Sleeper.

We associate the loss of memory with old age, illness, trauma, and thereby with disruptions to our lives, the decay of our existence as individuals. Yet, in considering all the details of the lives we have led, we forget with more aptitude than we remember. Indeed, our memories, those possessions we come about by virtue of remembering, are sculpted from forgetfulness (My lasting memory…; the memory I take from those years is of that one day…): it is only through all that voracious forgetting that we can identify, retrieve and encapsulate the moments we call memories that may be taken to amount to the stories of our lives.

The idea of “real time” that lies behind this blog relates to this idea of the single moment, that forms the basis of the short story and manages to present a passage of life that moves along much as our experience of living does. If (unlike Mrs Scum here!) you’re familiar with Henri Bergson‘s theories of Duration, you will have a sense of the discrepancy between real time, which is what we experience internally, and “mathematical time”, which is external, standardised and measurable but which, Bergson suggests, doesn’t provide a framework for understanding life. Instead, we have the accretion of consciousness – the knowledge, I suppose, of first how to live and then, within the ongoing process, of having lived – which itself depends on the accumulation of memory.

It’s appealing, from a short story point of view, to think of life as a collection of encapsulated happenings or intense bursts of consciousness, because that may be seen to equate to the stuff that generates and frames short stories. My preoccupation with the café story is a perfect example: the time spent in a café allows for a self-contained narrative to rise and fall; it is enough time for a memory to take shape, for an epiphany (an idea associated in short fiction with James Joyce) to take place; it is not so long that external mechanisms are needed to move the story along. A similar concentration of real time, physical space and circumstance is provided by a train journey, as depicted in a story appearing in this week’s Guardian by Helen Simpson; in the Ernest Hemingway classic, Hills Like White Elephants, the central characters are both in a bar and waiting for a train, and their euphemistic conversation would lose all its power if we then witnessed them go on to enact the thing they are discussing. These are hermetic spaces – enclosed in time and/or space, beyond the effects of an external world, within which we can witness experiences of life that ring true. So the stories are self-contained and their shortness is a necessity of their entirely natural status as fragments of consciousness.

Anthony Doerr‘s title story from his debut collection, published this year by Fourth Estate in the UK, Memory Wall, provides an immediate challenge to the simple adoption of hermetic narrative space as a short phase of time, or a confined area of physical space. It also challenges the apparently superficial but nonetheless troublesome boundaries between short, not quite as short and long versions of fiction. Memory Wall is a novella, by virtue of the fact that it comfortably exceeds the notional 8,000-word limit for what would be considered a short story, but it is not the length, nor has it the construction, of a novel. Novellas, typically defined as works of fewer than approximately 50,000 words, are troubling to short fiction because – unlike the Legoworld of short short stories or flash fiction, Hemingway’s six-word stories (“For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”) and tweet-length stories – they are not seen as a sub-let within the building of short fiction but in a different block. They are novellas because they are not short stories; they are not short stories because they are not short.

In his essay, Notes On The Novella (in Charles E. May ed. The New Short Story Theories), Graham Good makes the case that the focus on word count makes the definition of the novella arbitrary, that the roots of the word are in European literary traditions which didn’t necessarily determine a division of fiction into three archetypes defined by length, and that by defining a novella in terms of its properties places it at odds with the novel but within the same bracket as the erstwhile short story – which Good argues may as well be called a novella in order to eradicate the irrelevant element of size-ism. Having already called into question the nature of time, I’ll just say that this blog is called Real Time Short Stories and, unless Graham Good wants to pay for me to re-market it, that’s how it’s staying. However, we can be persuaded that our understanding of story length can be flexible where my notion of hermetic space is presented and examined. And it is in the way that Anthony Doerr’s novella deals with the encapsulation of experiences, not to mention the prose that’s so intimate it stings, that makes Memory Wall an essential reference point.

Alma Konachek is old, 74; she is ill with Alzheimer’s; and she has experienced the traumatic death of her paleontologist husband, Harold. Moreover, and not unlike her husband’s fossils, she is a remnant of a South Africa that has gone and is now best treated with selective amnesia. Named with a heavy nod to the post-apartheid Truth and Renconciliation Commission, the pioneering Dr Amnesty is enabling Alma to piece back together her past by accessing her memories via a library of cassettes, whose spools give witness to the moments of Alma’s life lying fossilised in her subconscious. Through the cassettes, Alma is reconnected to her younger self; through them, her Harold is still alive and talking to her:

“We think we’re supposed to be here,” he continued, “but it’s all just dumb luck, isn’t it?” He turned to her, about to explain, and as he did shadows rushed in from the edges like ink, flowering over the entire scene, blotting the vaulted ceiling, and the schoolgirl who’d been spitting into the fountain, and finally young Harold himself in his too small khakis. The remote device whined; the cartridge ejected; the memory crumpled in on itself.

Alma blinked and found herself clutching the footboard of her guest bed, out of breath, three miles and five decades away. She unscrewed the headgear. Out the window a thrush sang chee-chweeeoo. Pain swung through the roots of Alma’s teeth. “My god,” she said.

The cassettes fill a wall – the Memory Wall of the title – of her home in suburban Cape Town and somewhere among their number is the memory that will reveal the location of a gorgon skull and fossilised skeleton discovered by Harold just before his death and Alma’s subsequent regression. Memories – not least the floral, fragrant memories of affluent, elderly white women – have an illicit street value in the new South Africa. There is a parallel with soma, the drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Alma’s memory has added value, though, with a historic find awaiting the owners of the cassette. Roger, a softer version of Bill Sikes, has enlisted fifteen-year-old Luvo to help him steal the cassette. Every night, they break into Alma’s home, disrupt her sleep and add new layers of confusion to her already fluctuating grasp of reality. While Roger detains the old woman, Luvo plugs himself into cassette after cassette, a 15-year-old black boy with the multiplicity of life experiences of a 74-year-old white woman shuddering through his brain each night.

Luvo stands in Alma’s upstairs bedroom in the middle of the night and hears Harold Konachek whispering as if from the grave: We all swirl slowly down into the muck. We all go back to the mud. Until we rise again in ribbons of light.

This wind, Luvo realizes, right now careering around Alma’s garden, has come to Cape Town every November that he can remember, and every November Alma can remember, and it will come next November, too, and the next, and on and on, for centuries to come, until everyone they have ever known and everyone they will ever know is gone.

With its near-future concept of technology to harvest the recesses of the mind, and its criminal story dynamic, Memory Wall had every right to have been a dystopian, sci-fi thriller and be done with that. Depicted by a writer from Idaho, the South African setting could easily have been rendered with the same cosy exotica as Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s not for reasons of length that the story provides a challenging but rewarding detour in our travels around the hermetic spaces of short fiction (although it’s worth noting that, of the six beautifully-crafted stories in his collection, the two that would qualify as novellas – the other one being the finale, Afterword – are the most mesmeric): what Doerr manages to do is move beyond the clear outlines demarcating confined narrative space and time yet he advances the sense of complete stories fitting within sealed perceptual units.

Alma and Luvo, also Pheko, who came to work as the Konacheks’ houseboy in the apartheid era and who struggles to raise his five-year-old son, Temba, in their township accommodation, and the amoral Roger, not to mention the Harold and the gorgon fossil, all occupy a space in which each possesses an element of one another’s existence. There is to be no movement beyond this encapsulated existence until a resolution has been reached, achieved primarily through Luvo’s weary, bittersweet epiphany and a journey to the coast, where waves will wash away these memories that keep dead loves alive; those that scientists invent machines in order to excavate and that criminals plot to steal; eroded memories that are craved by those with no future and barely even a present.

The afternoon was spent preparing for a lecture on John Steinbeck’s Breakfast. Solidarity; the dignity of labour; Steinbeck’s prose always working up from the land and the people, coming back always to the land and the people; the synapses of the American Left passing this ideal via Steinbeck from the Wobblies and Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie, and on to Bob Dylan, to Gil Scott-Heron, to Angela Davis, to John Sayle, to Michael Moore. Stepping out of this aesthetic into D.W. Wilson‘s 2011 BBC National Short Story Prize-winning The Dead Roads felt a brutal re-entry into the nihilistic realpolitik of 21st century getting high and getting by.

Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived.

The retina-grabbing intensity in this description of Animal Brooks – road trip companion to the narrator, Dunc, and Dunc’s sometime girlfriend Vic – is somewhat hard-boiled and somewhat in the transgressive vein of a Hubert Selby Jr or Chuck Palahniuk. It’s an impression that barely makes it into the second paragraph, though, as the three companions head across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, towards the Northern Lights, and it becomes clear that it’s the emotions stirred up by their adventures, rather than the adventures themselves, that will define this story.

The difficulty, and danger, with analysing a prizewinning story is that you could grab hold of it with the trembling, clenched fist of the struggling writer and view it in terms of: “So this is the style and subject matter my prose has to sleep with if I want it to win any prizes.” Alternatively, there’s the news media reading of the story, which will focus on the money that one writer has won, and the names of the slightly better known writers that were passed over by the judges. It was a syndrome that found perfect expression recently when the Nobel Prize for Literature went, not to Bob Dylan, nor even the likes of Thomas Pynchon or Les Murray, but to Tomas Tranströmer. I compared the deflated response of headline writers – expecting a Dylan v Keats Revisited pseudbath – to that of the papers ten years ago when a Premier League footballer revealed to have had an extramarital affair, having hitherto been masked by privacy laws with speculation growing, was revealed not to be an international superstar but the journeyman midfielder and Blackburn Rovers captain, Garry Flitcroft. The Sun‘s banner headline – “IT’S GARRY FLITCROFT” – was an Ozymandian masterpiece.

IT'S D.W. WILSON

As silly as the discussions can get when short stories are subject to the supertrooper beams from an event that news editors consider might interest the public, let’s not pretend that any light at all shone on the form doesn’t make a welcome change. The scope for “IT’S D.W. WILSON” headlines was off-set by a week of scheduling, within Radio 4’s Front Row, of a reading and podcast of each of the five shortlisted stories. Listeners had the opportunity to form unfiltered opinions of the works themselves, within a medium which has traditionally bypassed literary hierarchies to allow the stories themselves to flourish. Fresh from completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, the prize represents a hell of a way to announce your entry into the industry and – while it’s hard to shake the idea that Wilson is casting himself as the “university kid” with whom Vic “bops around [on the West Coast]…who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight.” – you can imagine the man purse being put to good use with the cash prize. We can celebrate his good fortune but we can’t afford to have it colour our reading of the story.

It’s the way Wilson gets the machine of the story to work that makes The Dead Roads a significant new presence in our short story universe. The story is told with the benefit of hindsight – it’s set in 2002 and the potentially fatal dramatic high point, that turns out to be merely chastening, is flagged up in the breezy opening sentence – but it’s withheld from us what that benefit provides. By the end, Dunc appears suspended in a moment we know has gone by. He’s arrived at what seems a resolution regarding his relationship with Animal, the archetypal small town childhood friend you never grow up fast enough to get away from, and thereby his passing into adulthood; particularly definitive is his awareness of how he feels about Vic, who seems to slip like mercury between the gazes of all the men in the story. Yet there’s no sense of to what, beyond this moment, any of this has led. We just know that, on a mountaintop, Dunc has acquired a vantage point on his life he may never attain again.

Wilson prods the themes along with each new disclosure of character among the three road trippers, and Walla, the Native who acts as a mirror to the group and a plot catalyst for the story. If our initial impression of Animal was of a thuggish creature of base instinct, egregious in his overt pursuit of Vic, Wilson provides him with stepping stones towards a greater complexity:

He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride.

The role of the T.H. White re-telling of the Arthurian legend seems to reach beyond Animal’s protection of it as an emblem of family comforts. We later see him struggle through it, “finger under each sentence”, and for all its painstaking nature, his attachment to the book is a notable contrast with the more intelligent but infuriatingly passive Dunc, who senses he should have been able to accompany Vic to university but instead has ceded that side of Vic to the man purse carrier, just as he seems to be ceding her raw, pleasure-seeking side to Animal. Vic clearly seems to be a Guinevere in this equation but Wilson avoids too easy and crass signposting of plot parallels with White’s epic.

For all the Arthurian overtones, for all that it steers away from the transgressive towards something nearer the dirty realism of Tobias Wolff, for all the Hemingwayesque nada of the competitive posturing pit where men try to show that they are men, for all, indeed, that the shadow of Steinbeck doesn’t entirely depart over the course of a reading, a story lives and dies in the quality of its sentences. In Animal’s reaction when Walla points out that he’s just put diesel in a petrol tank, we can see how this story, about seeing things the way they actually are, will stay with us when we’ve forgotten how we came across it in the first place:

Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough.

Attempts by writers of short fiction to break into the news cycle might seem to have the makings of the most genteel heist movie since Getaway Driving Miss Daisy but, since BBC Radio 4’s decision to reduce from three to one the amount of short story slots in its schedule, this real time narrative has developed.

As previously discussed here, a petition, launched by the organisers of National Short Story Week, was signed by writers, listeners and broadcasters. In what was seen as a partial U-turn, Radio 4 announced that, in the proposed shake-up, the Sunday evening short story slot – hitherto used for repeats – would feature new stories. Now, the Society of Authors, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and actors’ union Equity have come together to send letters to the Chair of the BBC Trust and the Director General to urge a further climbdown. The letters call into question whether the decision to cut back on the commissioning and broadcast of short fiction “[is] in breach of the BBC’s Charter and, in particular, its duty to stimulate creativity, cultural excellence and its duty to monitor the delivery of public services.”

Let’s consider the proposed change. At its root is a decision to expand The World At One, currently in the 1.00-1.30pm slot, by 15 minutes. This is, of course, a recognition of the broadcaster’s burgeoning impulse to deliver more and better news programming, allied to the world’s capacity to provide it and the audience’s appetite to consume and indeed participate in it. It’s a symptom and product of rolling news formats and the sleepless news buzz and spectacle from the Twittersphere. We know the news doesn’t stop, and the ways in which traditional media outlets have had to adapt their once eternal fixities is now itself an engine for yet more news; it’s the “epiphenomenal” shift Will Self discussed on a star-studded Newsnight broadcast on the day the News of the World’s closure was announced. Like that newspaper, the short story’s weekday afternoon interventions in the business of the world, as brought to us by the BBC, seem also to be falling into the tectonic fissures.

As many of the petition’s signatories pointed out, however, reducing short stories on Radio 4 is not just a denial of work to writers and actors – as disheartening and damaging as this is, it’s not the platform for a compelling case when there are Hell-in-a-Handbasket roadsigns popping up all over the country – but also a needless assault on what should be a perfect symbiosis of form and medium. Radio is considered an ideal medium for short stories: naturally, because the culture of spinning a tale derives from the same oral traditions that inform speech-based radio. Furthermore, radio is enhanced by the nature of the short fiction it broadcasts. Each story in the Afternoon Reading slot occupies twelve minutes of airtime, and that translates as roughly 2000 words. In units of short story measurement, this makes the broadcast story a vignette. Even this is too rigid a definition, though, because these are no decorative contemplations of the passing moment, as a vignette is often entitled to provide. Narrative and pace matter in a Radio short: when I wrote The Prisoners for its eventual broadcast in March 2008, I found it helpful to organise the story into two-minute movements, each taking the characters and listeners deeper into the story. The sense is of a journey of regular progressions, even if, as with an M.C. Escher staircase, that journey leads us nowhere in particular.

As a sidebar, The Prisoners has since been re-edited for my Flax online chapbook, a signal that short stories may be taking some of the tricks learned for the radio into the world of Kindle and the iBookstore, where beguiling but bite-sized may prove the order of the day. There is scope to think back to another epiphenomenal moment, this time contingent on the arrival of radio, when the three-minute pop song emerged towards mass consciousness.

What we’re dealing with, then, is a moment to reflect on the way creativity copes with formatting, and the socio-economic agendas that govern the formats. The modern novel, for instance, has been a fluid entity since what’s accepted as its first incarnation, Cervantes’ Adventures of Don Quixote, which appeared in two books. In between the publication of the two, an errant author had attempted to pass off his writings as the next instalment of the tales of the errant knight. Cervantes used the introduction to Part Two to articulate what can only be described as his “beef” with the imposter, trashing his efforts in a manner later adopted by Ice Cube to diss Eazy-E. So half of the first modern novel became an assertion of authorship over the other half. Just as the novel then developed through serial form, via pulp fiction and the impact of the paperback, to the charming, extended treatments for films already in the pipeline that we enjoy today, the short story has taken shape within a different folio, in which magazines, radio and now the e-book have helped align the creases. This means we can – and should – argue as to the value of a short story’s ability to put the handbrake on a busy day and take listeners out of the remorseless nowness of it all, but we can’t pretend this isn’t a call for licensed subversion. We can argue that the BBC’s Charter is, in these terms, a mandate to subvert the hegemonic imperatives of the market and that’s why it is routinely under attack, but we know we still approach it as part of The Establishment, hence the satisfaction when our words get to be heard on its airwaves.

It comes down, in terms of this particular spoke in the news cycle, to the impact of 15 minutes. Each minute is prized territory in a medium and on a station in which a few seconds of silence would create a vignette of panic, while a whole minute of silence would stir nuclear submarines from their berths. Maybe the outcome of this will be an acceptance that there are fewer minutes to spare but that short stories matter enough to make sure they keep filling them. So we look to the formats within this form of writing: Hemingway floated the idea of the six-word story; flash fiction formats of 50 and 100 words, not to mention the 140 characters of a single Tweet, may often be too flimsy to satisfy, but they offer challenges to writers; and could the broadcaster find new ways to make use of the short story’s capacity to surprise and subvert, rather than simply to pleasantly divert?

We don’t know how this will end, so we stay tuned in.

If you caught my appraisal of the Ernest Hemingway story, A Clean Well-Lighted Place in the Cafe Shorts series last month, you may be interested to know that the story is mentioned in the the latest instalment of Chris Power’s Guardian Books column, A brief survey of the short story.

Power’s piece describes Ernest Hemingway’s blend of James Joyce’s “form as content” approach, “Hemingway’s [own] journalism training and the tenets of Pound’s Imagism, [resulting in] short, simple sentences mostly comprised of nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly…” This is extremely useful in helping us to understand the evolution of the short story within modernism. What Hemingway did with his prose had, in Power’s words, “a measurable and profound” impact on short fiction (most tellingly, on Raymond Carver) that has followed ever since. The “cup of tea exercise” I brought you recently and my earlier strictures against writing “rowlingly” stem from attitudes entwined with Hemingway’s approach.

CLIVE: I'll tell you another thing gives me the horn. DEREK: What's that? CLIVE: The word "and". DEREK: Oh, "and". CLIVE: Whenever I see the word "and" in a book ..... DEREK: You-, you've picked a favourite of mine there. CLIVE: ..... I get so fucking horny, I- DEREK: Oh, fucking "and", mate. Ohh, Jesus, .....

In acknowledging this, are we, as 21st century short story writers, indulging in some kind of auto-erotic asphyxiation of our prose styles? The debt owed to Hemingway, Carver, and other architects of the space around the words, underwrites much that is good in the prose of contemporary short story writers, but we have also an obligation to elude our influences, to make new with language. Such is the push-me, pull-me progress of this form, adhering to classic formalism and contemporary relevance within its own concise package.

I met with some writers yesterday. There is probably a dubious statistic – much like the one I heard when on a coach passing through Luxemburg in the 80s, that there was one restaurant for every four Luxemburgers and one brothel for every five; you wonder if the dishes ever get done – about the number of novels-in-progress per capita across the population of Liverpool. It’s a city of storytellers and the Windows Project monthly Writing Advice Desk in Larkhill Library gives some of them the opportunity to tell the story of the book they’re writing to a professional and gain some guidance. Also, as one gentleman pointed out, writing can be a lonely business so it’s good to have the chance to get out and make some human contact.

Yes, but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with the world’s dramas playing out beneath your fingertips – – with a cast of characters of such oddball diversity it makes Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 look like an episode of Button Moon, think for a moment about the characters for whom you have responsibility and over whom you have authorial control. There they are, straining every unobserved sinew to act out the fabulous ideas you’ve constructed, to break free from the overbearing influence of the friend or former acquaintance who inspired them in the first place, to throw off the burden of expectation placed on them by that high-powered first chapter or opening paragraph – and what do they get back from you? Plot, plot, and more plot. They get angry, they get sad, they get tough and they get going but, increasingly, it seems you don’t get them. Writers will often find themselves with – or fail to notice they’ve created – a pivotal character who just carries out the necessary functions of the current scene in order to get to the next one, without ever seeming to come alive. Your character needs downtime, space to breathe. You need to give this character a tea-break.

The Cup of Tea Exercise is one I give to students ostensibly to drill them in the skills of 3rd person objective narrative. If you click on the link to the Wikipedia entry on this narrative voice, you’ll see mention of it as a “camera lens” approach. It’s therefore relevant as we start to consider the synergy between short stories and film. In either medium, it’s the principle of show-don’t-tell writ large. If you can describe a scene and track the action, allowing the narrative to be experienced mimetically – as it’s happening to the character(s) – you can tell any story with intensity, clarity and coherence. The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog:

On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it. At least half an hour passed in silence.

Yet this could be the most celebrated moment in the last 200 years of short story writing. This is the anti-“Reader, I married him.” This is, “Reader, he shagged her, cut himself a slice of fruit and then realised he’d lost interest in both.” The line tells us all this without spelling out any of it. Understanding why this precise piece of imagery works is easy: understanding how to make your characters so real to the reader that their unconscious gestures and acts will be interpreted as contributory factors in the narrative is, as many of my students discover, not so easy. It’s essential in a short story to get this type of detail right but it’s important to consider when working on your novel as well. Simply this – listen to your reader: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.

It’s this aspect of characterisation that is the true source of the Cup of Tea exercise and here, in the most concise terms possible, is what it involves:

Your task is to get to know your character better by having him or her make a cup of tea. The action starts with filling the kettle (or equivalent) and ends with taking the first sip. What happens in between is governed by the following –
We must never read the character’s thoughts. We can only view his or her actions.
– No back-story is allowed in the form of narrative that addresses the reader. You must not directly explain the context for anything you present in the passage. This includes not giving a separate introduction to your passage to explain who your character is meant to be. It should all come out in the process of making the tea.
– No speech or dialogue is permitted that deals with anything that is happening outside the making of the tea. So, if there is another character present, comments or action between the two can only relate to the process of making the tea. Ideally, the character should be alone or any other characters should be very much in the background.
– The character should not do anything that reveals his/her back-story that takes place away from the making of the tea. The information we receive about your character should be gleaned entirely from the manner in which the tea is made. So the character can’t, say, leave the tea to brew and pick up a letter/gun/gift that will tell us more about his/her life. But if a gun is moved to get to the sugar, for example, you’re fine.
– Description is therefore paramount. The approach to making the tea and the tea-making facilities; the physical appearance of the character; the room in which the action takes place; even sounds and smells if they can be put across via the outward demeanour and behaviour of the character – all these are acceptable as details to include. But remember not to tell too much: if you character has a scar, then s/he has a scar – leave it to us to interpret where this scar might have come from.
– Coffee/cocoa are allowed, but the act of making the drink has to be a process involving a number of different stages. No opening of Coke tins.

What often shocks students is how much subjectivity there is in their writing voices. And why shouldn’t that be the case, since most of us come to the idea of writing as a means of expressing our personal intellectual, emotional and imaginative thoughts? Yet it’s exactly this part of the process that should help you understand that writing isn’t that lonely after all. There are others involved – and they in turn depend on you. Just try to give them a break from time to time.

This isn’t an invitation to bombard me with passages of writing, but if you do have a go at the Cup of Tea exercise, let us know how you got on. And don’t forget to keep checking the Twitter feed in the sidebar for Real Time miniatures, news and random witterings.


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