In the Saturday review section of the Guardian (12 July 08), Susan Hill comments on short stories in relation to prizes. Although the short story ‘is alive and well – among writers that is – …. Among readers it loses out in popularity and sales to its full length sister hands down.’ The reason? ’A hundred different people would give you a hundred reasons why short stories do not sell well. Mine are that ultimately, the story is less satisfying than the novel, lacks the depth, variety, richness and multilayer of meaning and reference.’ We use short stories as writing lessons. It is so much easier to teach via short-story writing (and they are easier to assess) and that’s why they are so loved in creative writing courses. Even though it is one of the most difficult forms and ‘unforgiving’. Nevertheless there is one area where the short story thrives, and that is in the prize arena, with many small and now also quite big and high-profile prizes, worth serious money. Being shortlisted or long listed for one of these is about more than winning a prize: as being listed can give writers the kind of promotion that kick starts a career.
Well, this made me think about my own short story reading and writing and that so far I have dismally failed in keeping up with the short story reviews that I promised to undertake when I signed up for A Curious Singularity, and the Short Story Reading Challenge. This week, I read Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, which is a short story about rather a grumpy old man who relates his wife’s friendship with a blind man and how this friend comes to visit them. He is really an unsympathetic narrator who is quite annoyed at this visit of a blind man
I wasn’t enthusiastic about the visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
In the evening of the day the blind man arrives, after drinking rather a lot, he and the blind man ‘watch’ TV, while his wife has fallen asleep on the sofa, too bad for wear, and there is a programme about a cathedral. The blind man professes he does not know what a cathedral looks like and in fact the narrator is not very good at describing what a cathedral looks like, so the blind man suggests that they draw a cathedral on a piece of sturdy cardboard. And as I come to the last page, to see where this gets to I realise I have lost the last page of the story, on my travels, it’s come off, the staple has let go. I will find the last page, because I am now quite curious and must know what the narrator in fact says to his wife and how the blind man resolves the conundrum of what a cathedral looks like. Only, I cannot tell you and isn’t that how reviews should go, not give away the denouement of a story?
Coming back to Susan Hill’s comment on short stories, it is really a bit worrying that there are more writers of short stories than there are readers, but I for one do enjoy reading them, especially as they do often help to get your thoughts together on how to write one yourself. And last night I did start another one, and it needs a lot more work.