Posted by: Corri van de Stege | July 12, 2008

Short stories and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral

 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.



  1. There is so much to be said for “synchronicity!” Several days ago, I went to the bookstore and bought CATHEDRAL! It’s on one of those “should read” booklists that’s circulating. It is waiting on my dresser, waiting patiently.
    And then I come to your blog, and voila! Thanks! Perfect timing and I am not waiting but will jump into the book tonight, feet first!

  2. Until recently, I never read short stories, for all the reasons Susan Hill cited. Through my reading for The Short Story Challenge, I have come to a greater appreciation of the form, and met some marvelous short story authors. As a writer, I find they are great “mini text books” for writing!

    I hope you find the last page of The Cathedral 🙂

  3. oh: there you go, enjoy, Cathedral is one of those stories that you really must read till the end, I still haven’t got round to that last page…
    ravenous reader: I began to appreciate short stories especially when doing this creative writing course: they are excellent ‘showcases’ of what good writing is about. And no, I still haven’t got that last page because I became involved in other stories/books – cannot win them all….

  4. I love short stories. Yes, I have a fiction writing background, and yes, I’ve studied the craft behind short stories, but I loved them long before any of that, and I wanted to learn to write them because I loved them. The best short story writers create works that are every bit as fulfilling as novels, and are usually more inventive–the writer can take more chances because the investment is smaller and the cost of failure is less.

    “The Dead” by James Joyce, a handful of stories by Denis Johnson, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, almost anything by a great Southern/Western writer called Rick Bass–these are as perfect as a piece of art can be and far exceed in quality any number of successful novels currently in print.

  5. JD: you are so right about short stories being every bit as fulfilling as novels – that’s why we read them, don’t we? It’s just that we seem to have to discover them. The more I read short stories, the more I appreciate and enjoy them, and the more I want to write them 🙂

  6. […] You read one and close the book and get on with whatever you have to do.  It is like reading poetry, it takes time and you want to savour each story.  And, this book also includes The Cathedral – yes that one that I’d lost the last page of when I took it as a print out on holiday…  so I’ve now read it completely and I’m not giving away the ending even now that I know, I reviewed it here. […]

  7. Cathedral is a beautiful piece of work and the series of short stories it is from was a great influence on my writing.
    I have been writing a short tale almost every day this year and blogging it. The first half of the year was strictly writing:
    …while the second half mixes in photos to make postcards, of a sort.
    I hope you’ll have a look at some.

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