Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Art of the Short Story

On the way to work today I read The Half-Skinned Steer, a short story by Annie Proulx. She's the one who wrote The Shipping News (hated it!) and Brokeback Mountain, which started as a short story and is now a majorass motion picture.

The reason I hated The Shipping News was, I think, the lack of adjectives. The sentences were short. Choppy. Non-descriptive. Stacatto. Came out in spurts. It was. Annoying.

The Half-Skinned Steer was the opposite, whitelaced with apoplectic strings of bone-jarring adjectives that cut a cowboy's skin to the marrow and in the process pierce your stonecold heart with a pent-up piston.

The language she uses in this story is beautiful, complex. The whole story focused on an old man travelling back to his boyhood farm, now an emu farm, for the funeral of a friend, and being haunted by ghosts along the way. That's about it. The story was simple, the language comlicated. The result was really cool.

Then it had a crappy ending. I was overjoyed to see she has the same trouble with endings that I do, though I must admit she did a better job with the middle parts.

Some writers are better at short stories and some are better with long ones. I seem to be best at the in-betweeners, the almost forgotten novella. In my short stories I have a tendency to cram 8 chapters into 9 pages and neglect the details and the feelings. Before I bother entering any more short story contests (excepting perhaps one story involving a transcendental finger puppet), I need to narrow my scope and deepen my understanding (and love) of my own characters.

Thanks Annie.


In the movie “Good Will Hunting”, a character says “All you people, you read all these books, but they're the wrong books. You all read the wrong books.”

I don’t agree with his statement. Reading any book or story is fine, but instead I have my own version of his hypothesis: People read the wrong things at the wrong time.

After reading your comment about you not liking the short story by the author, I ask myself “what was the motivation for choosing this story at this particular time?” Perhaps you choose to read this story because of the popularity of the movie written by the same author, and you agree with the ideological agenda of the movie. You say to yourself, “I liked the movie, this story must be good as well.” But, I propose to you that one reason you may not have liked the story is that it was the wrong time for you to read the story.

In my early twenties I read the book Steppenwolfe by Hermann Hesse. I read it because everyone said it was a book that one just had to read. But it was the wrong time to read it. No man who is in their twenties can truly understand this book at that particular time in their life. I did not like the book; nor did I truly understand it.

Recently, I read it again. Now that I am older, about the same age as Steppenwolfe, it was the proper time for me to read the book. Understand it? You bet I did. Like it? You bet I did.

So, put books and stories such as this away to be read at a different time and different place. You may have a different opinion later.
I actually really liked the story, a lot. It was beautiful. Just not a great ending. Which made me realize even the best/most beloved authors can have trouble with endings. The story taught me a lot about what a short story should be like. I read another one last night and it was even better.

You make an interesting point about how we choose what we read. This is a book I bought for my wife, indeed because she loved the movie so much. And sometimes when a movie's really touches you it's interesting to see the story behind it.

But I myself chose to read the short stories because I'm looking at short stories I've written and feeling they're pretty good, but not good enough. So I was looking for inspiration, and I got it.

A lot of what I read has to do with finding inspiration, and sometimes knowledge. I'm looking to fill in some holes in my perceptions. Usually if I don't like a book it's either because the writing style, or the content, is uninspiring. But of course that's a very subjective thing.
So, it is short stories with you? In the short story genre, there are only two consummate practitioners as far as I’m concerned: Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov.

And of these two, Maupassant with his piquant, some would even say indecorous conte leste, is by far the superior. Boule de Suif, La Maison Tellier, and The Graveyard Sirens are perfect examples of this. The story ‘The Necklace’, and ‘The Jewelry” are two of my favorites, and his most popular.

But do not be fooled by these blissful tales, or the “surprise endings”; Maupassant can be frightfully brutal as well! Examples such as a mother training her dog to avenge the killer of her child, the priest killing the lovers by sending their carriage over a cliff, the severed hand that...well, I do not wish to tell you more in case you have not read these gruesome stories.

Perhaps you understand French. If so I suggest reading them in the native language.

When I was younger, back when public schools actually had education of the student as the main goal, we read Maupassant tales in order to facilitate the learning of French...
Cool! Thanks for the recommended reads. Only Chekhov I know is The Bear (about which he once quipped, "I should have called it 'The Cash Cow'"), which was fun.

Alas, my French is tres pouvre, so until I remedy this I'll have to rely on translations.
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