Saturday, November 03, 2007

The art of the short story

Article in today's Guardian by Richard Ford on the art of the short story. It may be my illness (see below) but I found this very hard going. I had to force myself to read on - this is my specialist area, after all, and if someone has taken the time to write an article on it I could at least spend half an hour reading it.

It all felt strangely old-fashioned. The short story seems to have ended for Ford some time in the 70s. The only tokenistic sentence on the current day actually, I kid you not, ends up discussing Eudora Welty. And the next sentence but one takes us all the way back to Emerson. It's as though Ford is a kid who is trying to do without his comfort blanket but gets to the end of the block and has a panic attack and has to run back home for it.

One of the things he commends short stories for is their brevity and the precision of writing. The same cannot be said of Ford's. Take this paragraph, which actually makes an interesting point which I managed to grasp at the third attempt:

The mere act of writing a story at all and proffering it into a mental "space" some citizen might be otherwise happy to fill with the Wednesday-night fights or a '64 Ch√Ęteau Montrose, always constitutes an act of presumptuous and first-principle authority, and necessarily anticipates all the fictive demands to follow. (This is the privileged tap on the would-be reader's shoulder that many young writers take as their due, but that many older writers grow to feel - by dint of time spent reading - is an act of imposition whose harsh demands ought to be weighed in strict moral terms and ultimately rewarded.)

(And Ford is certainly a great lover of parentheses, always a good sign of a windbag.)

He also feels the need to give us the plot of Cheever's Reunion on two occasions, which is almost two occasions more than you get in the story itself. But that's why Cheever, as Ford suggests, is a genius.

I was also intrigued by the use of the universal 'her' and 'she' instead of 'him' and 'he':

The writer, for her part, exerts herself on otherwise unorganised language, creates utterances that provisionally subordinate our concerns to hers and - as we're induced to read on - draws us away from what we think toward what she thinks.

I've only ever seen that form of linguistic prissiness in Marxist texts - Terry Eagleton, stand up - so it came as a bit of a surprise here. (Especially, to parenthesise once more in honour of Mr Ford's lugubrious style, since in the preceding paragraph he names nine writers, only two of whom are female, so the law of averages very strongly suggests 'he' and 'him' would be more suitable.)

Dull, I think I would describe this article as. If you are looking for insights into the modern short story, you won't find them here. If you like very long sentences, though (especially ones padded out by parentheses) then this is the stylist for you.

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