Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Short Story Gland

I’ve recently been reading one of the best books on short story writing I’ve ever read. It’s called Short Circuit, published by Salt and edited by Vanessa Gebbie. If you write short stories, then you really should add this gem of a book to your collection. It has certainly inspired me to write more short fiction and has persuaded me that flash fiction is a worthwhile genre in its own right. I had previously been quite dismissive of the flash fiction genre, but I think I finally ‘get it’, mainly thanks to Tania Hershman’s wonderful article Art Breathes From Containment: The Delights of the Shortest Fiction or The Very Short Story That Could.
I’m often asked in my capacity as editor of The Yellow Room Magazine what makes a good short story or what I’m looking for. This is incredibly hard to pin down. Adam Marek sums it up beautifully, however, in his piece What My Gland Wants - Originality In The Short Story. Adam has very kindly given me permission to quote from his article. “When I read or write fiction, what I’m really doing is hunting for a very particular sensation. It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness. It’s the excitement  we get when we discover something new, something which in childhood we can’t take a step without tripping over, but which in adulthood is woefully infrequent. 
I get this sensation most intensely when I’m reading or writing short fiction.
Something about this form lends itself to revelation. I can think of so many moments when I have just finished reading a short story, and am sitting on my knackered sofa holding the book in my hands, too caught up in it, too exhausted by the ideas it has put into my head, to even think about reading another one.
This sensation is particular to short stories, for me anyway.”
Yes, I’m with Adam on that. A few days ago I read A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver. I can’t stop thinking about that story. It blew me away. It also says so much about grief; something I revisit every January without fail.
Adam goes on to say that he thinks “people who enjoy short stories have a special gland, one that responds to the unexpected with little bursts of pleasure chemicals.” He says that he is “always suspicious of people who love to read, but who don’t like short stories. These people, I think, if they have the gland, have a shrivelled thing, an atrophied little apple core. I pity these people. They are missing out on these inky little orgasms.”
Don’t you just love that phrase, ‘Inky little orgasms’? I think I’ll have to quote that in relation to the short story at every opportunity! 
Adam then says that the stories that get his “gland salivating” are the ones that present him with something he’s never seen before, “something absurd and then draw around it some internal logic - which justifies its existence, which makes it not just crazy surrealism, but grounds it in reality”. Adam admits that “it’s the stuff at the weird end” that he most likes to write and to read. And his stories are pretty weird, but addictive. I’m currently working my way through his collection, Instruction Manual For Swallowing.
In conclusion, Adam says that short stories “are like bubbles. Their existence is brief and miraculous, but the stuff that makes them can only attain a certain size.......Seamlessness is only possible within the short story. Perfection is only possible within the short story. And it is the pursuit of perfection, the balanced equation where everything that is included supports everything else and nothing could possibly be removed or added, that keeps us reading them.”
I’ll be discussing the short story form further in subsequent blogs this month, as I’m on a short story collection reading binge. I’m finding it more and more difficult to read novels when I’m working on my own. I need to immerse myself in the fictional world I have created rather than in someone else’s. Short stories are ideal, because I can ‘nip in and out’ of another world and move on. 

Finally, I’ve been asked by Hazel Cushion, owner of Accent Press, to plug their new Xcite eBook writers’ guidelines 


Tania Hershman said...

I'm so glad I have "convinced" you of the delights of flash fiction, every time I read a great flash story I am reminded anew just how little space it takes to astonish - and why, in my opinion, a writer should justify every word, every paragraph they use, making sure it isn't there just to up the word count. So much can be said in 250 words, or even 150!!

Short Circuit is a fabulous book, I have found it incredibly inspiring! We now have a website: <a href=">Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story </a>, which is in its early stages but will hopefully be providing "added value"!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I've added this book to my shopping list, as it might come in useful later this year. Thanks for the review.

You might want to delete the above spam.

Lesley Grint said...

I treated myself to Short Circuit for Christmas and have to agree it is a fabulous book. I've read it twice and find new gems every time. I have also bought several of the books mentioned in its pages. A great source of inspiration. It was very encouraging to read about Vanessa Gebbie's writing journey, too. There's hope for us all!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Jo - I have just seen this - late as always. Thank you for writing about Short Circuit on your blog - I am absolutely delighted that you have found it inspiring - isnt Adam's essay simply marvellous?! Happy happy writing, to you and to your readers and subscribers, and writers, all.