The Debate: Reading Short Stories

photo by Justyna Furmanczyk

‘…a non-starter when it comes to discussion…’

by Mike Smith

There was something in Professor’s May’s article for Thresholds that I couldn’t let go of, something that, it seemed to me, was based on an assumption that needed questioning, or at least needed to be put into a broader context.

That something was his statement that ‘short stories cannot be skimmed, read quickly or summarized’.  It’s the sort of remark that makes my hackles rise, regardless of who makes it, because I know that short stories can be skimmed and read quickly, and that they are frequently summarized.  They are read in buses, trains, and waiting rooms, between appointments and in snatches while the boss is away. They are recalled to friends in shaky patches and fragmented recollections.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that most short stories are actually written to be approached in this manner.

This fact – that short stories are skimmed and read quickly – might, however, elicit a response such as ‘ah yes, but reading like that doesn’t count’ which, by extension, implies that readers like that don’t count either.

Stephen King, writing his introduction to the re-published edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (quoted in The Telegraph Review, 23/07/11) makes some useful contributions to this debate. He is writing about novels, but gives a nod to short stories and poetry, too, when he gives us a rule of thumb: ‘feel it first, think about it later.’

He has already given us a context for this: ‘If the novel is strictly about emotion and imagination, […] then analysis is swept away and discussion of the book becomes irrelevant.’

What King is reminding us of here is that discussion may be a consequence of reading, but it is not necessarily the purpose of writing, and my suggestion, which is not entirely in opposition to Professor May’s, is that short stories must work at that more visceral level if they are to be worth the discussions that might follow. The levels at which ‘emotion and imagination’ operate are not those of academic, intellectual appreciation.  King, of course, has been dismissed by some critics, as was Vonnegut before him, but his book On Writing remains one of the best on its subject (as does Professor May’s The New Short Story Theories).

The pleasure we get from the short stories we have skimmed may be less, in all sorts of ways, than that which would be derived from a deeper reading, but I think we should pause before dismissing this manner of reading entirely. Reading is a form of entertainment, and though there are writers who labour to impress an academic audience alone with their fiction, there are far more who write to push the emotional and imaginative buttons of a less academic readership. Many of these are producing writing that will be capable of sustaining deeper discussion, but stories that haven’t already satisfied that more atavistic urge to be entertained are lesser stories: mere exercises in technique, rather than technique put to use. I have a recording of the late Norman Nicholson, arguably the most important poet to come out of Cumberland since Wordsworth, in which he tells me, ‘I’m an entertainer, Mike, not a philosopher.’

E. M. Forster, with his ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story’ (Aspects of the Novel, Penguin 2005 [1927]), may have started this assault on the stature of story in literature, but story has survived it. The fact that a story is written down does not turn it into a puzzle or conundrum. It may be that the written short story is one of several possible methods of recording a narrative form intended to be taken ‘at a sitting’, in one go, as it comes, and without recourse to turning back the page to re-read, in other words the score to an oral, aural form: to be experienced rather than to be studied. The makers of stories may have good reason to study their construction. The readers of stories might not. A car can perfectly well take you where you want to go without you knowing how to strip down the gearbox.

C. S. Lewis writes that a story ‘is a net to catch something else’ (in Of Other Worlds, Mariner 2002 [1966]). Academic discussion might be said to be about the qualities of the net, while non-academic responses are probably more often about what has been caught, even when, as Lewis goes on to say, it is usually not the prey that was initially intended.

Short stories may be complex and nuanced, but if they are not immediately accessible at some level, available to be quickly read and skimmed over, they are failing in their primary function, which is to entertain, in a perusal of  ‘one to two hours’, as Poe would have it.

‘This blew me away’ is pretty much of a non-starter when it comes to […] discussion […], but […] it’s still the beating heart of fiction’ – from Stephen King’s introduction to Lord of the Flies.

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7 thoughts on “The Debate: Reading Short Stories

  1. There are stories by Stephen King, e.g. ‘That Thing, You Can Only Say What It Is in French’ that you need to re-read to check that you really got it….This argument is setting up a false dichotomy between popular and ‘literary’ fiction. Who are those writers who labour to impress an academic audience? I speak as one who reads Alice Munro at the bus stop (and Stephen King too).

  2. What a wonderful way to start my new “school year.” I didn’t realize how much I missed reading Threshold’s articles and discussions, especially Mike Smith’s, until now. It dawned on me that I feel as excited as when I was a college student myself – and here we are speaking decades! Already my mind has been challenged, delighted, and taught a thing or two. Keep up the good work.

    I agree that short stories are written to entertain, first and foremost, and they have to engage the reader. Sure I like to be challenged, I don’t want to read the same story over and over again, but if the writing is deliberately obscure and there’s no emotional center, it will turn me off. I also agree with Professor May that a short story is not just about plot, moving from point A to B, but illuminating that experience and making a lasting impact on the reader. The best story for me is the one that contains both elements. It’s certainly a tricky proposition, one that I’m still trying to accomplish.

  3. Mike, you hit on something very useful for me with the C.S. Lewis metaphor. I feel a small “reverential damn” from a story that is a “net” constructed from beautiful patterns of language. I feel a bigger “reverential damn” when the net catches something beautiful. I feel the biggest “reverential damn” when the story-net bags something beautiful AND edible AND nourishing. To meet the latter criterion, for me, a story has to be entertaining, and beautifully constructed; it has to be accessible enough to allow me to be “in” it as well as to admire it from a distance as a linguistic artifact; I want it to make me consider an emotion or pattern of emotions in a way I hadn’t previously; and I want it to resonate with other things I’ve read and know – with my personal experience, memories, and emotions – in a way that makes me reconsider them and make new connections. Steven King succeeded for me with “The Man in the Black Suit”; the Alice Munro stories I’ve read so far have not, because for some reason I have never been able to establish a personal connection with either her characters or their emotions.

    1. I haven’t read the King you mention, but at risk of being buried under objections, I have to echo yr response to Alice Munro. I have read a couple of her collections, but they didn’t get through to this little rooster!

  4. I love that image, Charles, of the barnyard, you, the rooster and its hackles. There’s a wonderful story there, I bet; entertaining, I’m sure, and worthy of that ‘reverential damn’. A perfect phrase, by the way, for the experience of reading a great story. I’ve been re-reading Flannery O’Connor stories lately, and I’m almost breathless with reverential damn’s when I surface.

    A great debate. Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Charles. More, please.

  5. I certainly had no intention of making Mike Smith’s “hackles rise” with my suggestion that “short stories cannot be skimmed, read quickly, or summarized.” Being an old farm boy, I can recall that when crossing the barnyard I made the hackles of our rooster rise, I knew that I better get the hell out of there.

    But the issue that Mike raises is one that is near and dear to my heart, so I will face the fray to engage in (and hopefully encourage) debate about “Reading the Short Story,” since I have been trying to stimulate interest in the form with a blog by that name for coming up to three years. (O. K., now that I have done the predictable self-promotion plug, I will try to respond to Mike’s objections.)

    I think the question Mike raises rests on the fact that he and I are walking in two different barnyards. I certainly agree with him that many short stories, especially those written by Stephen King and other popular writers can be read hurriedly while waiting for a bus. However, I am not so sure that reading the stories of A. S. Byatt, Julian Barnes, Edith Pearlman, William Trevor, David Means, Alice Munro (Do I go on?) is pleasurably possible in the same rushing, skimming, hurrying, get-to-the-end-to-see-what-happens manner.

    Having read and taught short stories for lo these 40 years, I would be happy if more people were entertained by short stories. However, Mike and I may be using the word “entertain” in a different way vis-à-vis the patterned, as opposed to the plotted, short story. I am currently reading Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a brilliant, wonderfully entertaining collection of stories that makes me smile, utter a reverential “damn,” and shake my head in pure pleasure and wonder. But I have been reading the stories slowly, carefully, often with my lips moving. I take a little respite after each one, walking in the garden or fixing a cup of tea, pondering the beauty of Pearlman’s prose. By God, these stories are “entertaining” in exactly the way Edgar Allen Poe would have appreciated, since he was the first writer/critic to recognize that the short story is an aesthetic form that achieves its entertainment value by means of a carefully structured pattern of language, not by a speedy summarizable plot.

    Thanks, Mike, for taking the time to read my modest wee piece and to engage in this lively little debate about the short story’s “entertainment” value. I hope others will join in.

  6. Mikey, again you defy the odds, I am really positively appalled by the boldness of your statements here. I believe short stories are indeed skimmed, read quickly and summarized. Maybe the complete intention in such statement is that, “Short Stories cannot be accurately read quickly or summarized”, but that would in turn be up to the readers thought processes yeah.. Regardless, I have concluded that short stories are made for the summary, and intended to be skimmed as a classic short story can turn into a long conversation over a “brewski” or “twoski”, hence the King’s madness ‘feel it first, think about it later.’ The way I interpret this lingo is a perfect skim, the mind has great memory. Mike Keep um Com min Lad…

    Mike with Mesa 85205 Auto

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