I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction as of late. Not due to any self imposed goals or rules, but rather my collection of unread stuff has had a large amount of shorter works: two anthologies of short stories, a hand full of literary journals, Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and The fifth head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. As I’ve never really read short stories before I thought it would be good to try and read all I had before formulating an opinion.
I’m not through all the anthologies yet and I think I’ll reserve judgment on literary journals until I have read a few more, but in my opinion what makes short fiction successful are the same qualities that make novel length fiction successful: good writing. Obvious answer I know, but as always the simplest explanation is most often true; I figured I’d leave it at that.
Clarke’s scattered stories as a whole felt more like exercises than actual works. There was some good--which was still bland--and there was some bad--which was atrocious, but outside of the excellent Mr Simonelli or the The Fairy Widower none in this collection are memorable. More than likely this volume is a publishers efforts to cash in on the success of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Which is all well and good for the publishing world as it needs to generate income, but it is rather disheartening for many as yet unpublished writers concerning the quality of works that make it to the printed page. Personal feelings aside, the entire volume felt like an exercise in world building. If I had to guess, these stories were crafted along the road to completion of Ms Clarke’s fantastic novel.
If you, as a writer, don’t have anything to say; why would you commit your lack of anything to paper? If you had to write your ‘nothing’ down, why would you share it with anyone else? Perhaps the titles in Ms. Clarke’s collection best describe the writing: the two best stories Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was built at Thoresby and the previously mentioned Mr Simonelli contain the word, “or.” It is this indecision, this open-ended uncertainty on the authors part that make me believe these works were not to be shared with others. She didn’t even know what to name the works. I can only hope that one day I will be as fortunate as Ms Clarke and be consumed by the ever influential dollar.
Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus is him at his best...and worst. It is far more accessible than his other works (primarily as it is shorter) but lacks none of the depth that one becomes accustom to with Wolfe. The three stories that make up Fifth head of Cerberus are frustrating, annoying and out right anger inducing. Most irritating of all is that fact that these elements combined do nothing but make the reader keep turning pages in an effort to make sense of the cacophony. The second story--appropriately entitled, “A Story”--reminded me much of On Lickerish Hill by Clarke, with inane babble and vague ideas loosely thrown together in an attempt at a coherent story. Wolfe found some measure of success as all three of his stories are interrelated. At least I was able to take something away from, “A Story,” to apply to the previous story and keep in mind for the third. His disjunct presentation and nonlinear approach is no doubt a turn off for many, but I find the work involved in reading his works highly rewarding and just as every other book by him I’ve read the greatest compliment I can pay is that when the book was finished despite all the headache, I had to fight the urge to turn back to page one and start all over again.
Of the other short stories I’ve read, I’ve been extremely pleased. They have introduced me to a handful of good writers whose books I plan to check out. Contrary to what some may say, there is nothing exotic about short stories, they are as run of the mill and standard as the novel. There is nothing greater or lesser about one compared to the other in my mind. The unifying thread is quality. To me the rules of good writing don’t change with the page count.
My friend Gabriel, who wishes he was Brazilian, brought over some cachaca the other day. He told me all the hype and romance surrounding the drink and proceeded to make us exotic beverages from South America that I was extraordinarily pleased to consume. However, at the end of the day, cachaca is rum. Sure the sugar cane comes from Brazil but sugar cane it is none the less. Thus are my feelings concerning the short story, be it four pages or forty. Cachaca is to rum what short stories are to the novel: a variant of the latter; derived from the same feeling, with it’s own character which grants it its identity, but essentially the same.