Of Stories — Long, Short and Tall

Stories long
I live in the land of legendary prolix – Wales may well be the land of song, but it is also the land of garrulity.  The Welsh can talk and talk and talk, on the street, in the rugby stadium, by the chapel steps, or at the home.  Yet, as they say, chwarae teg (fair play), some Welshmen have been supreme orators.  Consider the statesman and the preacher, David Lloyd George and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, for their eloquent content.  Or Richard Burton for his lush diction.  Yet others, such as that parliamentary pair, James Callaghan and Neil Kinnock, achieved long-winded boredom in both substance and delivery.  Orate?  Yes, occasionally.  The Welsh can also occasionally write.  Think of that poetic twosome, Dylan Thomas and R S Thomas.  Yet talking and writing are the cousins of communication, both express the thoughts of the brain – the tongue of the former often becomes the pen of the latter.

Herein is my little thesis: do the citizens of a particular country display a national characteristic?  And if so, is Wales’, verbosity?  In other words, are the Welsh really all nationalised chatterboxes?  Richard Burton claimed that, ‘The Welsh are all actors.  It’s only the bad ones who become professionals.’  Or as A A Gill described the Welsh in his infamous 1998 article for The Sunday Times, as ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.’  That is a portrayal too far and too vulgar.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones took a different angle, ‘The Englishman looks upon the Welshman as a rebel, an awkward individualist, as a man who always wants his own way and is perpetually creating totally uncalled for difficulties.’  Hmmm.  At the more reprehensible end of the moral spectrum is that beloved son of the Principality, Dylan Thomas, whom Paul Ferris, his English biographer, described as a chronic liar who made begging into a cottage industry, adding that he was a thief, a cheat, a drunk and an adulterer – as well as a dutiful son and good with children.  Righto, that is enough, but my little thesis has not exactly been disproved.  But hey who cares?  Wales is not the land of my fathers!  Yet some of my best friends are ….

Stories short
OK, so blethering and rambling are probably not exclusively Welsh characteristics, nor is fine prose.  Beautiful, concise writing is a rare talent and its outcome is to be desired and fostered.  But it is not simple.  Somewhat counterintuitively, it is far easier to talk for 45 minutes or write three pages rather than 15 minutes or one page.  Permitting just five minutes or one paragraph is akin to malice.  Blaise Pascal knew this.  In December 1656, he sent a diatribe to a group of Jesuits about the lack of practical morals in the Roman Catholic Church.  Finally, he wrote [in his Provincial Letters, no. 16], ‘Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.’  It translates as, ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.’

Yes indeed, less is so often more, whether written or spoken.  I have heard (far too many) sermons that could have been cut, even slashed, without detriment.  Now do not get me started on students’ essays.  The fact is, every piece of writing (or speaking) can be improved by editing, despite grumblings from the wordsmith.  Long stories are often inferior stories.  Witness the growing number of publishers who no longer employ copy editors with their blue pens and savage scissors.  The upshot – more loose-knit books of sub-standard prose and style.

Thus editing mostly means shortening.  So, how about not just shortening, but crafting the ultimate and creating an entire story in a few words?  In the truncated world of Twitter’s 280-character limit (incidentally, the exact stretch of this paragraph) that ought to be a breeze.

You think so?  Consider this fabled example, often ascribed to Ernest Hemingway, which he produced allegedly to win a bet.  Here it is: ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’  Beat that curt little masterpiece!  See, already there is a story going through your head, perhaps even the rough outline of a book, a play, or a film.  Others have also tried their hand.  Joseph Conrad maintained that he too could write a novel in a sentence: ‘He was born, he suffered, he died.’  G K Chesterton could also be brief.  When asked by The Times to write an article on ‘What’s Wrong with the World’, he apparently wrote back: ‘Dear Sirs, I am.  Sincerely Yours, G. K. Chesterton.’  And, of course there is that tersest verse of the Bible in John 11:35: ‘Jesus wept.’  Now there really is a story and a half.

Stories tall
Stories come in two grand divisions – they are either non-fiction or fiction.  For some 50 years of my life I have been engaged with the former, namely science, truth, fact, data, information, statistics.  That is what experimental science is all about – if you cannot describe it sufficiently to replicate it, it’s not real science.  And when scientists write their rigorous science stories they are generating non-fiction.  And I would contend that good and proper bioethics should also be non-fictional.

Fiction is something else.  Whereas non-fiction is bound by reality, fiction has wings.  Truth is hardly its primary concern.  Imagination is its principal driver.  Fiction is stories tall.  Reading it can be fascinating, mind-stretching and liberating, but, oh dear, it can be so, so wordy.  I have never tried to tackle the blockbuster that is James Joyce’s 1,000-pager, Ulysses, nor am I a fan of the loquacious Charles Dickens.  Give me a 300-page book to read and I am happy.  Give me 10 pages and I might be even happier.  And while I am unlikely to face again the trauma of writing, editing and publishing another chunky non-fiction book – though I do have two or three already half-written on my desk – I do fancy writing a short, fictional story or two.  I even have a few ideas.  After all, can it be that hard?  Alexander McCall Smith, who has authored about 100 books of fiction, including the best-selling series The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, averages 1,000 words an hour!  That’s a book in a month – with even a few afternoons off.  I regularly write a 12,000 word Update of Life Issues for my website.  It takes me two whole weeks, not 12 hours.  Therein is the major difference between composing fiction and non-fiction – I have to be scrupulously fact conscious, McCall Smith can take wing.

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story
But before I rush into my new enterprise, I thought I should first study a few classics from the genre to get me in the mood and to see how this art of concision is best practised.  So I bought a copy of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story – From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan, edited by Philip Hensher (2016).  It was a Christmas read.  If its 718 pages could not spark some suggestions and share several scripting secrets, then probably nothing else would.

Hensher introduces the book thus, ‘The British short story is probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world.’  He could be right.  The stories range in length from half a dozen to thirty pages each, with perhaps twenty being the average.  Its typical short story therefore consists of about 10,000 words.  But that is where any similarities within this collection end.  The book’s tales are so vastly different, from the weird, to the moral, to the unimaginable.  They are written by well-known authors such as, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy and H G Wells and lesser-known writers (at least, to me) including Mary Lamb, T Baron Russell and Arthur Morrison.  I found their tales thoroughly engaging and hugely enjoyable, mostly.  The great advantage of this sort of collection, with its multiple authors, is that any tedious tale is quickly over.  The next one will probably be better.

What were the stand-out stories?  For the wrong reasons there was Dickens’ Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgings.  It opens with an 11-line sentence.  What’s up with the man?  He suffers from writer’s windedness, an ailment with a simple and speedy remedy called full stops – one to be taken every line or two, until the entire discourse is finished.  Similarly, a difficult read was James Hogg’s John Gray o’ Middleholm mainly because of its Scottish dialect.  And there was the overly prissiness of G K Chesterton’s The Honour of Israel Gow with its creepy religious overtones.  Surprisingly, Daughters of the Vicar by D H Lawrence was not an easy read – its language and dialogue were foggy, though it was gripping and more fluid in places.  There is, for instance, an almost comically frightening, but also depressing, proposal of marriage – a lesson in how not to do it – between the sickly, puny clergyman, Mr Massy, and the rather sweet Miss Mary.  He is ‘a small, chétif man, scarcely larger than a boy of twelve, spectacled, timid in the extreme, without a word to utter at first; yet with a certain inhuman self-sureness.’  So much for vicars in literature.

A more welcome contribution was Silver Blaze by Arthur Conan Doyle, cheerleader for weirdo spiritualists, but also a fine writer of crime stories.  His was a horse mystery that I remembered reading for the first time when I was about 12 years old.  Strangely, I could recall almost the entire plot and denouement from 60 years ago.  What a memory, I had then!  And there was more good stuff.  The amusement of A Little Dinner at Timmin’s by William Thackeray, the unexpectedness of Six Weeks at Heppenheim by Elizabeth Gaskell, the evocation of hot and smelly Egypt, and Cairo and Cheops in particular, in Anthony Trollope’s An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids, and the outrageous, yet believable, story of Mrs Badgery by Wilkie Collins with its identical opening and closing line, ‘Is there any law in England which will protect me from Mrs Badgery?’

And there was Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband – how twenty-first century.  The weirdness of Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm with its memorable line, ‘Excuse me gentlemen, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.  I’m the Devil.’  By contrast, there was the touching love story by Evelyn Sharp entitled In Dull Brown.  And there was the wonderful restrained humour of Jonathan Swift in Directions to the Footman with its no-nonsense advice, such as, how to crack a crab – in the door by the hinges.  And when no shoe-boy is available, ‘clean your master’s shoes with the bottom of the curtains …’

Another favourite was The Matador of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett, which at 32 pages is one of the longest short stories in the collection.  The hero of the title is Jos Myatt, champion footballer, but in the concluding pages he becomes a widower and a father of twins, all in one day.  Bennett is known as the Chronicler of the Potteries, which consist of six towns –Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Longton and Fenton.  In 1910, they were merged to form the city of Stoke-on-Trent.  So why only five in this tale?  Bennett renamed his five imaginary towns as Turnhill, Bursley, Hanbridge, Knype and Longshaw.  Apparently, Bennett reckoned ‘The Five Towns’ sounded more euphonious than ‘The Six Towns’ and so Fenton was ditched.  I have little affection for Staffordshire, though my wife comes from the nearby and allegedly ‘posher’ Newcastle-under-Lyme.  I find it all rather dismal, an amalgam of greys and browns, with few trees or green fields but unrelenting expanses of lacklustre hedgerows and muddy verges.  And Bennett seems to agree with me.  Two lines from The Matador are, ‘… like nearly everything in the Five Towns, carelessly and scornfully ugly!’  And, ‘We saw a snake of children winding out of a dark Sunday school into a dark brown chapel.’  A short story that is evocative is a good one.

Writing short, tall stories
Now that The Penguin Book has been read, the question becomes, how to create that short piece of brilliant fictional prose, that tall story?  I used to (try to) teach biological science students how to write succinctly, but also interestingly.  ‘How to make a cup of tea’ was one of their written exercises.  It was a largely dispiriting experience.  Nowadays, Google supplies shedloads of ‘how-to’ counsel.  Evidently, the current go-to masters are Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell.  Not forgetting the celebrated ‘iceberg theory’ according to that prince of brevity, Ernest Hemingway.  He maintained that a short story should reveal only a fraction of its true meaning – its implicit significance should remain in the 90% submerged.  All budding writers are free to pick and choose their mentors.  Sometime, somewhere (annoyingly I cannot remember the source), I found this set of seemingly sensible ‘rules’:
    1]  Open with a catchy hook if not a spellbinder.
    2]  Develop a character or two.  Set the setting.  Grab that human interest.
    3]  Use nice words and a few unusual ones.
    4]  Keep the interest going, the word count is mounting fast.
    5]  Surprise the reader every now and again.
    6]  Close with closure or puzzling openness.
    7]  Edit often, edit ruthlessly, of course!

Over and above that set of guidelines is my tip-top directive – write, write, write – put something on the screen, force yourself.  It is only a first draft and however clumsy and embarrassing it may be, it will be edited later.

Writing a decent short tall story must be a satisfying experience, and getting it published would be exhilarating – rejection is no fun.  But such opportunities for personal ego-boosting are not the only available rewards.  Cash is also available.  For example, there is The Sunday Times annual Audible Short Story award, which is the world’s richest prize for short fiction.  The £30,000 prize is given to a piece of under 6,000 words (a mere day’s work for McCall Smith) written in English.  Tasty!  The downside, at least for me, and I quote from the www.shortstoryaward.co.uk website, is that ‘…the author MUST have previously have had works of prose fiction, drama, or poetry published by an established publisher or an established printed magazine in the UK or Ireland, or broadcast by a national radio station in the UK or Ireland.’  By those criteria, I am not yet a creative writer – bioethics is strictly not fiction.

A short aside
I enjoy reading any challenging book that occasionally drives me to the dictionary.  Words are a joy.  The Penguin Book of the British Short Story certainly fulfilled its promise by this measure.   Here is a good example.  What do you think ‘fulsome’ means?  ‘Generous and kind’, as in ‘he gave a fulsome introduction’?  You are wrong and are probably confusing it with ‘wholesome’, or similar.  What it really means is quite the opposite, namely, ‘unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech.’  What about ‘limpid’ and ‘noisome’, which do not mean ‘slow’ and ‘loud’ respectively, but rather ‘transparent’ and ‘evil-smelling’.  And there is febrile (feverish), insouciant (carefree), subfusc (gloomy), and those twins, irenic (peaceful) and polemic (controversial).  And the book contained several examples not even in my dictionary – chétif (sickly), skip-kennel (a lackey), tawpie (a scamp) and haverel (a chatterer), equiponderate (counterbalance) and clanjamphry (a mob).  Incidentally, can you spell 'caterwaul'?  That is enough exposure of my illiteracy.  What a tricky language English can be.  Small wonder that most of us have an active vocabulary of only about 20,000 somewhat dull and overused words.

A short conclusion
For me The Penguin Book was a splendid venture into the largely unknown world of fiction.  Moreover, it included refreshingly little sarcasm, explicit sex, swearing or murder.  And for stories ranging from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, there were the expected patches of evangelical Christian narrative – a few sympathetic, others not so.

What I found most attractive was the range of writing styles and topics.  To zip through three short stories by three different authors in an afternoon was a novel experience.  And the topics were entirely unpredictable.  And instead of the dogged logic of non-fictional writing, fiction can fly.  For instance,
in his Daughters of the Vicar, D H Lawrence springs a surprise as one paragraph begins, ‘In six months’ time Miss Mary had married Mr Massy.’  What?  Why?  How did that happen?  The imagination soars.

Perhaps my non-fictional liberation has already started because in this current piece I notice that I have used parentheses, a device previously reserved exclusively for mathematics.  Am I softening?  Are my chains of pedantry slackening?

And finally, the big question.  Have I now written my first short story?  Yes and no.  ‘Yes’, I used to compose them for Miss Wilson while at my primary school.  And ‘No’, not this decade.  Yet.  And anyway I have the second volume of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story – From P G Wodehouse to Zadie Smith sitting unread on my bookshelf.

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