Friday, September 12, 2008

How do we read short stories?

Fsjl asks whether short stories should be perceived as novels in miniature, or as vignettes or as sketches. I'm tempted to say, well, they could be any of those. They could be all of those. They can be anything, because, after all, everything is everything these days. If Bristol Palin's breach of the sixth commandment – remember those ten rules written on the tablets that Moses struggled down the hill with? – has suddenly become the epitome of Christian virtue because she happens to be making a baby, well, who can doubt my argument? (I have to confess that I'm thinking of writing an epistemological essay called, "Everything is Everything" – footnote to Prof. Lauryn Hill whose ruminations inspired the title.) It's the age of prestidigitation, the age of virtual obeah. (I confess that I visited a few blogs this evening and they've left me a little bit high.) Everything is up here in the sky, and boy, believe me, it IS everything, double entendre intended! And in the midst of this plenty, who cares that Jamaican children don't know about Miss Lou and many have never heard an Anansi story? Who cares that there are teachers, in Jamaica and elsewhere, who can't tell the difference between a newspaper report and a story – long or short? And is there a difference? Don't both have a beginning, a middle and an end? Can't both affect you emotionally? Don't both have characters? So what makes the thing we call a short story itself and not something else? Apart from saying that a short story is by nature, short, it's not a question I plan to answer directly – not this time around anyway. Here are my reasons for not answering. We don't recognize things by applying definitions. That's an artificial activity. Indeed, definitions are, for the most part, a fiction. We imagine that because we can manipulate and describe things, we can define them. Not so. Outside the countable sciences, definitions don't hold, and once geometry gets into astrophysics and math graduates into infinity, supposed definitions in those sciences cease to hold as well. So how do you know anything? Recognize and identify it? By that same set of cognitive activities that you apply to know the difference between a duck, a turkey and a chicken! As has famously been said, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it's a duck. The above, translated, simply means that if you hear and read enough stories, you know a story when you encounter it. I invoke that set of processes that one Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky described long ago: "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts." So you hear a tale from your Granny (an activity between people, and so interpsychological) and then it settles into you as an experience to which you apply the name, 'story' and you begin to form a concept (intrapsychological), creating a little mental hat that fits this thing-called-story. It is this earliest, most satisfying human activity that becomes the basis of our ability to appreciate history, our Holy Books, our family lore, the lays of ancient days, the Harry-Potter-length novels of now – and the short story. It is this earliest activity of storytelling in which I am now most interested, and that we all need to hustle to preserve. So, for the moment, here's my word on the short story: if it looks like one, sounds like one, affects you like one, then it's one. If at one end, it seems to be slipping into a vignette, and at the other, it's carrying on like a sketch, that's okay too. That's how things in life are. Call it a short story if you like. No harm done. So why did I say Ms Urquhart should have included only bona fide short stories in her Canadian collection? For reasons of pedagogy and practicality that we will treat of another time. Have a good weekend, be well and happy and stay dry! We'll talk again soon. Insha'Allah...

29 comments: said...

Great post, Pam.

For my definition of a poem, short story and novel i use the analogy of a cricket match:

poem: the ball meets the bat. six runs!

short story: the bowler and the batsman have been childhood friends and now they are facing off for the first time. the bowler knows that the batsman has been chatting up his girlfriend and perhaps more... and he bowls

novel: the history of the bowler and batsman, cricket, the caribbean, the universe with some kind of resolution


clarabella said...

Hi Geoff:

Glad you enjoyed it. And, as always, thanks for the teaching. Your cricket analogies are most helpful. Not to be sexist, but I feel challenged to discover some from a woman's world that might work as well... On a different note: any idea what's up with nicholas laughlin's blog? I followed some links from your blog last night and was quite puddle-eyed after an hour or so! It would be lovely to talk to you about some of this stuff some time. Are you on Skype, by any chance? Have a good weekend. P&L, and thanks for visiting.

FSJL said...

The word 'novel' ('novella' in the original Italian) originally meant a fictional anecdote no longer than could be told in an evening. Written down, they were a 'new' thing in fourteenth-century Italy.

The short story should be a complete tale that shouldn't take more than an hour or two to tell, by whatever means it is told -- written down, read aloud, recited.

And Geoffrey: 'poem: the ball meets the bat; the fielder catches it; howzat?'

FSJL said...

Nicholas Laughlin, according to his Facebook page, is in London.

FSJL said...

I am on Skype, btw.

clarabella said...


We still haven't explored the issue of vignettes and sketches and excerpts from longer works as short stories... It's worth talking about, don't you think? I read Geoff's interview with you last night. Thereafter, one of the sites I visited was the Ledgister family's home page. Handsome sons you have there! I'd have loved to see more pictures of you and your siblings as children. Is that you on the left in the London picture with your dad? Where's your sister now? And what of the other brother? Thanks for the info on nicholas laughlin. And what's your Skype moniker? Do scoot it over to marpam and maybe we can chat some time. I am distressed with your country! Over two thousand people staying in Galveston to tough out the hurricane! Are they crazy? And McCain lying like a trouper – or is it trooper, while Ms Palin's movie star image is clouding issues like the economy, the wars abroad, the environment. I pray. What else is there to do?

FSJL said...

I agree, the issue of vignettes and sketches is worth talking about (as is the issue of short stories deliberately included in longer stories, or framing novels structured around short stories).

In the photograph you mention I'm the scowling one furthest to the right (or to my father's left from his perspective). The one furthest to the left is my younger brother.

My sister died in February 1966, about six months after that photograph was taken. My baby brother is now an own-account consultant to the petroleum industry and living up in the north of Scotland.

I've looked you up on Skype and send you a (very brief)message.

Watching McCain and Palin lie is an interesting exercise. I hope Obama finds the, ahem, testicular fortitude, to counter them. said...

FSJL, if the ball is caught, throw away the poem.

The problem with vignettes and sketches is the resolution--not that all is well, but that the central conflict has been laid to rest--the other shoe fell!


clarabella said...

fsjl, Geoffrey:

Seems to me that I often write poems where the bat meets the ball and the fielder catches it... I think of "Sunflowers" ( as such a poem. Or maybe I'm interpreting the metaphors all wrong? said...

Pam, sorry to be sexist, but "Sunflowers" is a home run, six runs & a slam dunk!

clarabella said...


I'm not HUGE on sports but I know enough to understand that you think it's a pretty good poem. I'm glad you like it. I still need for you to open up "the bat meets the ball and the fielder catches it" analogy for me though... said...

If the fielder catches the ball, the batsman is out. He has failed in his intention of getting the maximum impact for his effort--everything that he has known, learned, and felt has gone into that moment.


Jdid said...

wow i getting a real education from this post and comments. respect!

clarabella said...


I had thought that the powerful momentary explosion of ball meeting bat stood for the poem, while the shared history of batsman and bowler, culminating in this moment (the bowler might, after all, shy the ball at his head!) represented the short story. The novel would be an extended version of the relationship of the players, presumably also culminating in the cricket match. Then I got to thinking that some poems don't so much explode as sigh or groan or get themselves into a 'ball meets the bat, fielder catches it' kind of scenario. I guess it's all about how we see metaphors, isn't it? 1Love

clarabella said...

Hi jdid:

As always, glad to have you with us. If the post and the conversation are useful, better yet! P&L said...

Yes, and who is writing the poem. If the fielder caught the ball, that would be his moment.

I guess, I'm thinking also of lyric poetry. Epic poetry would not meet this description except, perhaps, at the climax.


FSJL said...

IF the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he's bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They too shall perish unconsoled.
I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.
Andrew Lang "Brahma" said...

Fragano, that's a definite YOMANK.

Perhaps, it could begin a Caribbean version of Casey at the Bat or a new Song of Myself.

I loved this!

FSJL said...

Geoffrey: That was written over a century ago by an Englishman. It's a parody of a very serious poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

clarabella said...

fsjl, geoffrey:

Well, we are clean bowled, having lapped up that tasty porridge of a parody, courtesy of Prof Ledgister. I think he owes me a computer too. Where on earth did you find it, Fragano – or are you an expert on Andrew Lang? Or Ralph Waldo? At any rate, thanks for the lessons, both. Like jdid says, respec. said...

we are, indeed, clean bowled.


FSJL said...

Pam: How come I only owe Geoff a keyboard, but I owe you a whole computer?

I first came across Lang's parody years ago (and Emerson's Brahma even more years ago). Geoffrey's cricket metaphor made me think of it, and 30 seconds after having thought of it I found it on the net.

I'm not an expert on Lang, though he was a fine writer of both ballades and fairy tales, nor on Emerson. I seem to be turning into an expert on Thomas Carlyle, however, much to my horror.

clarabella said...


Anansi, the old fashioned trickster one, is being rehabilitated in JA, it seems. Some of us were discipled by him too long ago to change, however, your humble servant being one, which would explain why I would try for the computer in the hope that you are so pleased with yourself at making me laugh so hard that you don't notice that I've upped the ante. Why is it such a horrible prospect to be an expert on Thomas Carlyle?

FSJL said...

You get caught and you blame the poor little spider? For penance you must read Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mister Norell.

I take it you haven't read Carlyle, Pam. If you haven't, then this:

should provide a sufficient explanation of why developing expertise on Carlyle (which, I can, in all honesty, to have a modicum of) might be something of a horror).

clarabella said...


Reading for penance? Duh? As for Carlyle, is it not perhaps as important to be expert on those who have bedeviled us as on those who have helped to save us – all of us, that is, not just black people?

FSJL said...

I find it fascinating that I know a great deal about and have spent a long time getting into the mind of a man who hates people like me. Time and again, as I read another eminent Victorian on the West Indies, I found myself growing angrier and angrier (this was particularly the case reading J.A. Froude, though the Rev. Charles Kingsley was almost as annoying, and there are people who do not understand why I won't read the novels of Anthony Trollope for pleasure since The West Indies and the Spanish Main was such a minor work). Carlyle, however, is particularly hateful.

clarabella said...


I don't know that I have the stamina to deal with it, but I am now fascinated by the extent to which, throughout history and now, so many, many of us appear to be brainwashed, Stepfordited persons, rather than beings who are intellectually, spiritually and conatively (as in the exercise of will – I used the word in my PhD thesis and two of my thesis committee saw fit to correct it!) independent. I increasingly suspect that it may be less a matter of "How good a person?" or "How bad?" and more a matter of "How successfully programmed?" The implications of this, especially in an age of poor elementary education and pervasive mass media, are truly terrifying. This is not to remove the idea of individual responsibility, simply to suggest that Star Trek's idea of the Borg may prove to have been more insightful than we know.

Will said...


I just found this blog through Jdid's. Not a moment too soon. Thanks so much for this - I need to explain the difference between novels, novellas and short stories to my students sometime soon. It's usually a bit sticky for me since the whole novella idea puts a serious spoke in my wheel. Your post, and some of the stuff in this discussion, has been a great help and will feature in one of my lectures this term. Thanks again. :-)

clarabella said...

Hi Will:

Thanks for passing by. How's it there in St Vincent and the Grenadines? I've got as far as Grenada, but still haven't made it to St Vincent. One of these days! Glad to have you stop by, and specially glad if you found the conversation useful. Hello to your students. Come again soon. P&L.