Tom Sutcliffe: The joy of a short story

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In The Devil’s Dictionary Ambrose Bierce defined the novel as “a short story padded”. It’s a little self-serving as a definition this. Bierce himself was a short story writer and the entry perhaps betrays a certain testiness at the respective statures of the two forms.

Certainly what follows that opening remark seems to have as much to do with the merits of the short story as it does with the failures of the novel. “A species of composition,” Bierce continued his definition, “bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As[the novel] is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in the mind is the mere plot of what has gone before.” So, if “unity” and “totality of effect” is what you seek, he suggests, you’d better look elsewhere.

Bierce’s polemical description has come to mind more than once over the last few months, while – as chair of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award – I’ve been reading through the submissions for this year’s competition, or rather the 51 stories that, after a heroic preliminary sifting by BBC and Book Trust readers, were eventually set in front of the judges. For one thing, there’s the apparently trivial fact about the short story that Bierce makes by implication – that, unlike most novels, it can be completed in one sitting. Like any form of writing, the short story has to exist in a state of mild neurosis about its readers – will they get bored? Will they understand? Will they abandon it? But it is liberated from the effort of maintaining a long-term relationship. And that, I’m pretty sure, makes it a freer, more flirtatious form than the novel – less anxious about the done thing. The short story doesn’t have to share its reader with day-to-day life in the same way as a novel; and in the best of them, that registers as a compelling intensity, whether it’s in the assurance of the narrative voice (short stories can adopt an oddity accent that it might be impossible to maintain over 25 pages) or a playfulness of manner.

My experience of this concentrated bout of reading was one of preconceptions repeatedly overturned. I’d vaguely expected that most of the stories would be post-Joycean exercises in plangent epiphany; in fact there was a startling range of voices and manner and no obvious fear of the “old-fashioned” crafted ending. I’d expected that writers might opt for gravity of subject-matter as a way of offsetting the short story’s perceived “lightness”; in fact, there were stories here that concealed their depth inside exteriors that were superficially jokey. They came on as disposably flippant only to reveal a Trojan horse content. Most of all I assumed that I knew perfectly well what I liked in a short story and that the task would be to ferret out the tales that matched the photo-fit – only to find myself seduced by works that didn’t fit my preconceived description at all. In the end, our shortlist of five – to be announced this evening on Radio 4’s FrontRow(andonwww.bbc.co.uk/nssa) – pleasingly represents that variety and invention I think, each one individually possessed of the “unity” and “totality of effect” that Bierce admired, but collectively delivering quite the opposite in their range. The temptation with Bierce’s tart definition is to simply reverse its terms, to describe the short story as “a novel distilled”. In fact, that doesn’t even begin to do justice to the form’s energy and unpredictable spirit.

Don't lose your head over art trends

The news that Paul Delaroche's painting of Charles I being sneered at by Cromwellian guards is to go on show at the National Gallery, after spending decades rolled up in an attic, was intriguing for two reasons. The first is that it isn't the only Delaroche painting to have been resurrected from apparent destruction, his painting of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey having been rolled up after the Tate Gallery flood of 1928 and only rediscovered in 1973. The second is related to those long periods of disappearance – which presumably occurred because Delaroche's stock had fallen so far since his heyday in the early 19th century. Had the paintings still been regarded as artistically important in 1928 and 1941 they would never have gone missing in the first place, after all. Thinking about that steep decline in artistic standing, I found myself wondering who the Delaroches of today are – or rather, what our current equivalent of history painting is. For a time the supreme artistic genre, widely assumed to have a monopoly on aesthetic seriousness, it then melted away so comprehensively that its masterpieces were regarded either as embarrassments or mere historical curiosities. Which of our unassailable art movements today will one day have people asking "How could they have taken it all so seriously?"

***

It would be heartless to describe the poet Philip Gross as being 'lucky' in the timing of his latest book, The Water Table. On the one hand a poet who finds that his new collection matches the weather with an uncanny closeness; on the other hand people whose homes and businesses have been wrecked by flood. But it was odd to read it last week, when page after page seemed to connect back to Cumbria. Sometimes this was at odds with Gross's intentions. His description of how "the river desires/ with a fixed and single/ minded purpose/ to be everywhere" was written about a gentle meander of the Severn, not the Cocker in spate. Elsewhere, he seems in parallel with current events, as when he describes a "flood-feature" in his poem "Designs for the Water Garden" and writes of "the tracks of the water-beast dragging its bulk/ through the garden. Its scrapings, its droppings/ twig-mats and shreddings wrapped round trees". And sometimes he provides a poetic footnote for a bridge engineering term most of us won't ever have encountered before last week, as in his poem "Bridge Passages", in which he writes of "scour/ as ceaseless as a digging/ animal, scrabbling/ back upstream: scour/ that would bring a grand construction project to its knees". The Water Table is up for this year's TS Eliot Prize and if unintended topicality was a criterion it would surely win.

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