I first came across Professor Charles May’s blog eighteen months ago and was immediately struck by the quality of May’s insights into the short story form. May has published 8 books and over 300 articles on the subject of short stories, and I Am Your Brother is the culmination of forty years of teaching and thinking about this often misunderstood and disparaged prose form. True scholarship, in the sense of being heart-felt as well as erudite, is unmistakeable, and I recommend this book both to readers and writers of short stories, and to those who have not, up until now, given them much thought.
One of May’s central concerns is that short stories have suffered in the past, and continue to suffer, by being compared, in a simplistic way, to novels; by being considered no more than bits of novels, constructed according to the same formal patterns and with the same narrative ends in view. He sets out to dismantle these false assumptions and he does so very convincingly.
Short stories have ancient ancestors, and have remained connected to their roots in the sacred parable, allegory and myth. The everday passage of time, cause and effect, the development of individual characters within a social framework are all hallmarks of the novel from the eighteenth century onwards. In the short story, because of its shortness, and because its writers started out with very different aims, time is just as likely to be compressed, or frozen.
In discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s approach to the short story, May points out that it ‘reflects the basic paradox inherent in all narrative: the writer’s restriction to the dimension of time juxtaposed against his or her desire to create a structure that reflects an atemporal theme. Because of the shortness of the short story, the form gives up the sense of real time, but compensates for this loss by focusing on significance, pattern and meaning.’
Important themes for me, in I Am Your Brother, are the sense of mystery to be found in the best short stories, how they give an outer shape to inner meanings, manage to convey what can’t be put directly into words and eschew so-called rational explanations. May quotes Flannery O’Connor who ‘once said that what the short story writer sees on the “surface will be of interest” only as it can be gone through “into an experience of mystery itself.”
From Boccaccio’s The Decameron up to the present day, May illustrates his points with pertinent and interesting examples. My knowledge of short stories and what makes them essentially different from long prose forms, has been greatly enhanced by reading this book.
Above is the text of my Amazon review of I Am Your Brother, but I thought I would add a few more personal thoughts about it on my blog.
Having had eight novels published, and with a ninth (The Fourth Season) soon to be released, I am better known as a novelist than a short story writer. However, a few of my short stories have had multiple publications in anthologies and have found a readership. Two of these are ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’ (Canberra Tales, Below The Waterline, The Invisible Thread) and ‘Two Wrecks’ (Best Australian Stories 2008 and Best Australian Stories – a ten-year collection, 2011).
The success of these stories, coupled with my experiment in self-publishing an ebook collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution, has got me thinking about the place of short stories in my writing life.
Like many fiction writers, I always know when an idea is a ‘short story idea’, and I always hear, with my inner ear, before I set a word down, the tone of voice I will need to sustain. Needless to say, this is very different from how I begin the project of writing a novel. I have often been criticised, and, I am ashamed to say, too often bowed to the criticism, that my fiction is elliptical and indirect when it should be straightforward. I have often been asked to explain or clarify character and motivation when this was the last thing that I felt like doing.
Reading I Am Your Brother made me feel that my instincts were right all along, and that those criticisms came from perspectives and expectations that were alien to me, and to which I should never have tried to reconcile myself.
I’ve decided to use this blog post to expand my thoughts on the novella, and to add some new ones.
There’s been much talk of the novella being the perfect form for the digital age, both for reading and adaption to the screen.
‘Given that so much of the world suffers from a rapidly eroding attention span perhaps the novella is overdue for a new breath of life.’ (David Henley)
‘The form of the novella lends itself far more easily to (film) adaptation because of its focus on a single character, its concentration and shorter length. For the digital generation accustomed to the ninety-minute narrative, the novella fits neatly into the limits of the two-hour cinematic time frame.’ (John Dale)
I think many of the current claims made for and about the novella are dubious. In my view, people who enjoyed reading John Grisham on the train in print form will continue to do so on their tablets or ereaders; while those who enjoyed literary novels and short stories will continue reading those. The fact that you can’t finish a blockbuster on a single train journey will be neither here nor there. I’m not so sure about movie adaptions. We will have to wait and see.
But what I am sure about is that a good novella requires the same sustained concentration as the best short stories, and that this is a result both of their compression and their subtlety. Of course, not all of us are capable of sustained concentration on the train or tram, but that’s a separate point. There’s always the alternative of staring out the window, or studying one’s fellow passengers, heads bent over their tablets, or talking on their mobile phones.
I have just reviewed, for Kill Your Darlings, an excellent novella, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. You can read my review here.
An earlier post on the novella, written when I reviewed Julienne van Loon’s Harmless, can be found here.
I wonder if it’s true that novella writers can’t get away so easily with sloppy construction and banal language as blockbuster writers can, that the tightness of the form somehow precludes this, or is simply not attractive to those who can’t help themselves from becoming long-winded. Alice Munro’s Nobel win may shed more light on fiction’s shorter forms, and there’s a great deal that those who wish to practise them can learn from her.
My short story collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution is now nine!
You can purchase an extra story, at no extra cost, from Authors Unlimited.
The story is called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and it formed the nucleus of my novel The House At Number 10. Paul Ham accepted the story as a stand-alone and then told me he wasn’t going to publish any more fiction.
I wish I’d known in time to include it in my ebook collection, but here it is now.
This is the second of my promised blog posts featuring Australian poets – this time it’s Joan Kerr, who writes delectable prose as well as poetry – more of that below.
Joan’s poetry has been widely published in Australia, including two appearances in Best Australian Poems (Black Inc, 2004, 2006). Joan has been published in the US and the UK and has been featured on Radio National’s PoeticA. She has won numerous poetry prizes including the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Prize, the Henry Kendall Poetry Prize, the Woorilla Prize, the W.B. Yeats prize and the Dorothy Porter Poetry Award, and minor prizes in the Gwen Harwood, Max Harris, Val Vallis, Tom Collins, Rosemary Dobson and Melbourne Poets awards.Her collection Human Voices was shortlisted for a Varuna Publisher’s Award in 2012. A selection is included in Triptych Poets Issue 3 (Blemish Press 2012). She also has a poem in the recently published Australian Love Poems (Inkerman& Blunt)
that time of year thou mayst in me behold
cloud light arches giving onto fields
and sometimes water, lying by the land
what are my walls what is sky water or earth
clouds the air’s shadow over the walls
like a gliding loss
the sound of my steps in vanishing corridors
under fog the water is so still
each boat stands on its own stiff shadow
and autumn burns the trees again
From: This vision thing (Melbourne Poets’ Union 2003)
When the phone rings in the night to tell him someone’s died
not unexpectedly, and without giving trouble,
he thinks as he lies down of the hurt red setter
he had to shoot, what, forty years ago? His heart flinches again.
His house flowering quietly around him
in this contented suburb, he lies awake until
the trees step out of the shadows. Fifty.
He wonders what he did for the rest of that day
and why he’s never seen, these forty years,
those trees with the ripped and shaggy bark
and under it, the silky heifer skin. That sky
so clean and glittering
it makes you want to weep.
‘Doctor’ was broadcast on RN PoeticA 12/3/2000
The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
You knew genius when you saw it, you said.
Perhaps your cultivated
insignificance created shadow
in which it shone more brightly. Gertrude Stein
was your own household genius, not so much loved
as taken on, as an oriental monk
takes on the burden of the gods, whose service
depends on order. Bells are rung
to rule, and certain kinds of sweeping must be done.
For monks, it goes without saying
the gods are not indifferent to menu,
or to trademarks, or to fashion
and all their foibles are a kind of glorious cheek.
Because they can, they do
and this works well, as long as the god is stone.
But you are bolder and more knowing than monks
and you want more. Because you know
that genius is not stone, because you understand
how genius needs accomplices.
How like a blubbering child your genius is
standing at the head of the stairs
uncombed, half-dressed and pleading for your kindness.
You whisk by towards the kitchen.
Some third person is picking up its pen.
From: Best Australian Poems 2006 (Black Inc)
Here are some thoughts about poetry that Joan would like to share:
A poem is “an experience, a story, a piece of music, a set of images…” (Steve Kowit, In the palm of your hand, p. 125)
“Poetry expresses the passage from not-knowing to knowing through which we represent the world, including the perspectives of others, to ourselves and those around us.” (Kowit, p.14)
“The substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal…” (Theodor Adorno, quoted in Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, p. 43)
Mary Kinzie (A Poet’s Guide to Poetry) advises both reader and writer of a poem to think about:
“Words: you are not just reading messages or extracting meanings or drafting editorials to put into lines: you are thinking in words. You are thinking so hard in the atmosphere created by words that they enter you like your breathing. This means, first, looking at words by themselves, with all their weight and subtlety; it helps to think about their length, complexity, and language of origin too.
Sentence versus line: along with the form and sound of words by themselves, you are concerned with their connection into sentences, in whole or in part; some of these parts fall neatly into lines, others work against the lines.” (Kinzie, p. 6)
With her sister Gabrielle Daly, Joan writes comic novels under the pen name Gert Loveday. Writing Is Easy, by Gert Loveday, has recently been released as an ebook and you can find it on Authors Unlimited. It’s a great read!
Gert writes with authority on peculiar diets, exercise regimes, body makeovers, extreme fashion, gurus, pigeons, religion, poetry, politics, the health bureaucracy, gourmet cooking, reality TV and literature from the Norse Sagas to Jeffrey Archer, with a sharp eye for character foibles and the pricking of pomposity. Writing is Easy was shortlisted for a Varuna Publisher Fellowship in 2011.
When I came across AS Byatt’s description of the modern sentence, it was with a sense of deep familiarity.
‘A good modern sentence proceeds evenly, loosely joined by commas, and its feel is hypothetical, approximate, unstructured, and always aiming at an impossible exactness which it knows it will not achieve.’ (A. S. Byatt, “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction”, in On Histories and Stories, Selected Essays, Harvard University Press 2001)
The sentences Byatt described were the kind that I wrote naturally, it seemed to me instinctively, that I felt at home in. And I immediately recognized the irony; for it is precisely the feeling of being ‘at home’ that is unsettled by such syntax, interrogated by it.
Nevertheless, it felt good. It seemed that, during the years I was teaching myself to write, finding my voice as a writer, I had tapped into a mode of contemporary English that was meaningful because it expressed doubt about meaning, because expressions of doubt and uncertainty were fundamental to it. I had found a sentence construction that belonged to my time and I had made it mine.
Some months ago, I had the opposite experience. I received a reader’s report on a fiction manuscript I had submitted, a report complaining about my sentence construction. The reader described my parenthetic sentences as ‘like listening to a radio that isn’t correctly tuned to the station.’ I didn’t understand the criticism, and puzzled over it. I tried to initiate a dialogue with the reader, but this proved useless.
I finally concluded that, not only did this particular reader have no interest in what was happening inside my sentences, but she had no sympathy for the modern traditions I was writing out of; indeed, to her, they weren’t modern. They were, if she bothered to consider them at all, a thing of the past.
This experience has led me to look differently at writing trends, and to think back over the novels I have reviewed over the last fifteen years.
Many of the books I receive for review are written in the present tense. The present has become the norm, and normative. Sentences which are constructed out of it are shorter and, for the most part, direct; the visual image I have is of sentences all facing the same way.
Partial, verbless sentences are common, or ones in which the present participle is expected to do the work of a whole verb. The idea, I believe, is that this way of writing brings the reader right up close to the characters and the subject matter. The word ‘immediacy’ is often used on back cover blurbs. But I have never, either within an individual review, or in the discussion that goes on around them, found anybody making a case as to why immediacy, conceived in this way, matters. The beneficial effects are taken for granted.
I would love to find a discussion somewhere about what might become lost as this fashionable style spreads. Ambiguity has its dangers; I’m well aware of that. But I wish someone would explain to me why getting rid of ambiguity is better, or convince me that prose that strikes my ear as glib and shallow has more to offer than I give it credit for.
The present tense is supposed to bring readers right up close to the action, to make them feel that they are part of actions that are happening right now. These are illusionist’s tricks. You might argue that all writing makes use of illusion, and it does. But what troubles me is that the ubiquitous present, unrelieved by any other tense, unrelieved by even the pretence of narrative distance, makes it all too easy for the narrative voice to celebrate superficial reactions and emotions and to look no further.
Another way of putting it, is that the novels read like a rehearsal for the books they might be, if only their authors would reflect more deeply, and make sure their readers were given the space and the time to reflect as well.
You can read an essay I wrote for Spectrum on the present tense here.
The villanelle is a very old poetic form, medieval in fact, but it has become popular with contemporary poets in Australia.
In this blog post – the first of several I plan to write about poetry, which I love reading, but don’t write myself – I am focussing on the Australian poet Suzanne Edgar, who has this to say about the villanelle.
“The villanelle is an old Italian lyric form that was originally sung; it needs a consistent metrical musicality. There are rules about its rhyme scheme, the refrain lines and their position in the poem. The refrain needs to be strong enough to carry the emotional load of its repetition. My villanelle ‘After Drought’ was written in a joyful mood, during a downpour of summer rain. It was included in Mike Ladd’s `Poetica’ program.”
How sweet it is, the sound of falling rain
after years of unrelenting dry,
I thought I’d never hear the sound again.
The falling plays a favourite refrain
as soft as stroking, quiet as a sigh.
How sweet it is, the sound of falling rain
that soaks the bark and leaves a greenish stain
as if it had been coloured with a dye.
I thought I’d never hear the sound again.
Deep ruts are overflowing in our lane
and clouds are spreading froth across the sky.
How sweet it is, the sound of falling rain ‑
new droplets form on wall and window-pane
making shapes that glitter, blend and die.
I thought I’d never hear the sound again
of steady raindrops humming in my brain
their plaintive rhyme; for no one will deny
how sweet it is, the sound of falling rain.
I thought I’d never hear the sound again.
‘After Drought’ was first published in Quadrant (June 2008). It inspired a piece of textile art, exhibited by Lynne Taylor at Fairfield City Museum & Stein Gallery, N.S.W., in May 2009. Ian MacDougall composed music for it which he’s sung (with viola, violin and guitar backing) and recorded on a CD. This is in the School of Music library, A.N.U. The CD was played on `Macca All Over` (ABC RN) on 3 March 2013.
The more sombre `Resolution’, in Edgar’s collection The Love Procession (Ginninderra Press, 2012), involves a domestic argument that goes around and around in circles. ”It should not be read as strictly autobiographical though,” says Edgar. “Matthew Arnold’s words are always on my mind: `The despotism of fact is unpalatable to the Irish.’ ”
We’d argued through a long and foolish fight.
Though there was nothing useful left to say
it simmered in the evening’s muted light.
He’s always bloody sure he must be right,
the sort of man who’s bound to get his way –
we’d argued through a long and foolish fight.
I shoved our tell-tale budget out of sight
to read again some later, peaceful, day.
It simmered in the evening’s muted light.
He swore he had suspected I was tight,
repeated it was high time I should pay.
We’d argued through a long and foolish fight.
I took the bills and set each one alight
till they, and I, became an ashy grey
that simmered in the evening’s muted light.
Because I couldn’t face a sleepless night
I sold some shares and paid up straightaway.
We’d argued through a long and foolish fight
that ended in the evening’s muted light.
Edgar comments that “Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled (Arrow Books 2007) provides witty advice about the villanelle as a vehicle for ’rueful, ironic reiteration of pain or fatalism’. I recently finished the rather mournful ‘Lament’; it has the refrain,
‘Thinking, tonight, of all the books we’ve read,
I know we’ll miss ourselves when we are dead’.
Wendy Cope, however, has written some amusing examples, see ‘A Villanelle for Hugo Williams’, in her Family Values (Faber 2011). This poem displays the form’s rules in the guise of advice to another writer who’d got them wrong!
Other old French forms I’ve used are the rondel, ‘River and Rock’, and the triolet, ‘Malunggang’, both in The Love Procession. Once the formal pattern for such poems is in place I will overlay it with naturalistic or colloquial diction and tone, to avoid any effect of rigidity. This approach was also used in the petrarchan sonnet ‘Corteo d’amore’ which begins that book.
Poetry arises from watchfulness and alert waiting. There remains the exciting, rejuvenating work of refining. I would hate to be labelled a formalist, a modernist, or any other `ist’. It would be restrictive, whereas I feel free to write in any way I like. I agree with Camus: ‘Poetry that is clear has readers. Poetry that’s obscure has commentators’. I mistrust the current vogue, particularly among academics and their imitators, for writing poems in which meaning is cerebral, convoluted and difficult. They write only for the page, have turned poetry into words.”
My short story collection ’Eight Pieces on Prostitution’ is now available for $9.99 on Authors Unlimited, part of the ASA website, as well as
The stories span the whole of my writing life and include my first published story, ‘The Man Who Liked to Come with the News’, which Frank Moorhouse included in ‘The State of the Art’, 1983. My first novel, ‘Tunnel Vision’, published the following year, is set in a Melbourne massage parlour, and I have continued to return to the subject of prostitution in my novels and short stories, notably in ‘The House at Number 10′ and in this collection. ‘Where the Ladders Start’ is a long story, almost a novella, based around a suspicious death. Many of the stories are set in Canberra, where I lived for thirty years. Once the city gained self government, it pioneered the de-criminalisation of prostitution, which remains an interesting prism through which to view our national capital.
The cover design is a based on a painting by Bartolome Esteban Murillo called ‘Two Women at a Window’, which is held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Though the women in the painting are probably prostitutes, it is not absolutely clear; there’s an ambiguity about them, as well as an amused self-awareness. I like this very much and feel that it suits my stories.
My story, Mrs B, is now up on Meanjin’s website, along with many of the contributions to the Canberra centenary issue, including David Headon’s wonderful essay on the Griffins. See my earlier blog post on this.
I really like the illustration Meanjin has chosen to go with my story, in which flowers play an important part.
Here’s an example. Mrs B, who has had to give up her dress shop at one end of Acland Street, St Kilda, finds work in a massage parlour at the other end. She receives a lot of flowers.
‘They had a kind of lop-sided concentration about them, as if, in their freshly watered folds, was stored a knowledge of all the flower arrangements clients had ever bought for their favourite girls. They were smooth to the touch, even the rose thorns were smooth, as though, out of nature or beyond it, they might never wilt. And yet they were real flowers. They had been plucked alive.’
‘Mrs B’ is one of the stories in my soon-to-be- published collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution.
My review of Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Canberra Times last weekend, prompting me to think again about the novella as an art form and all that’s been said about it over the last few years. As many readers and commentators have observed, the novella has been enjoying something of a come back, due in part to the digital revolution and in part, in Australia at least, to the Griffith Review novella competition, which received more than 200 entries. Julienne van Loon was a judge of this competition, along with Craig Munro and Estelle Tang.
Harmless exhibits one of the classic features of the novella, in that the action is compressed and tightly constructed – a point I make in my review. But what I didn’t go into – 600 words imposes its own kind of compression – was how that action and those characters are made richer for the reader by the scope van Loon allows herself to explore the characters’ past lives and what has led them to their present impasse.
Harmless could have been an excellent short story, tense and full of a sense of impending doom - not that those qualities are missing from the novella – but it takes longer to reach the climax. It takes its own good time.
While I was writing my own attempt at a novella, called Ashes from the Headland – it made the finals in the Griffth Review comp and you can read more about it here - I was helped in my thinking by an excellent essay called The Novella: Some Tentative Suggestions by Professor Charles May. May talks about various hallmarks of the novella, including ‘an ordered situation broken up by disorder’, a character having ‘to make a choice of nightmares’ and a setting that is ‘cut off from the everyday world of normal reality.’ All of these apply to my novella and to Harmless, a title that contains frightening levels of irony.
It’s a fascinating question, and of course one that will never be answered definitively – how long a work of fiction needs to be in order for the themes and characters to find full and satisfying expression.
My Canberra crime quartet is about to go digital – all four books at once! I’ll be offering special deals and giveaways and using this blog to let readers know about them.
The first three, The Trojan Dog, The White Tower, and Eden, are published by Wakefield Press in Australia, and the first two in America by St Martins Press. I’m glad they’re being released as ebooks this year, when Canberra turns a hundred.
I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning in 2008 to Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, where I grew up. Writing a mystery series was one of the things I turned to, to try and understand Australia’s national capital both as the city I loved and as a seat of government that is often misunderstood and derided by the rest of the country. I decided early on to write four novels, one for each season, beginning with Canberra in the grip of a hard winter and ending with The Fourth Season, which is set in autumn.
I’ve always been fascinated by the physical aspects of the city, the way the clear inland light seems to promise truth, the way it shines on the Parliament’s enormous, overbearing flagmast. Canberrans have in their mist an imposing castle on a hill; they must struggle to define themselves against it, even if they do this subterraneously. The fact that inland Australian light shines brightly on our castle, that it is seldom veiled in mist like Kafka’s, makes it more, not less mysterious.
All four books feature Sandra Mahoney, and I’ll pause to say a word about her name, which has a good literary pedigree, as in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony; and an architectural pedigree as well, as in Marion Mahony Griffin, whose superb drawings were submitted along with her husband’s prize-winning design entry and are held in the National Archives. I’ve added an ‘e’ to my protagonist’s name, but that is neither here nor there; I often think about literary and architectural traditions when I’m writing about Canberra, and in some ways see my Sandra as an heir to them.
Sandra is an everywoman, falling into her first investigation, and soldiering on from there. My other series characters are a Russian IT person, Ivan Semyonov, and a Detective Sergeant called Brook, who suffers from leukaemia. Sandra’s two children, Peter and Katya, also play important roles.
And my other character is cyberspace. Electronic crime features in each book of my series. In the 1990s, when I began writing it, hardly any Australian writers were focussing on electronic crime; it seems odd to look back on that now. The ACT government once planned to make Canberra the IT capital of Australia; that’s a quaint notion now as well. Yet electronic crime seemed to fit well with the place that for thirty years was my hometown – the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, or pretending not to know – the government as the country’s biggest spender and therefore an attractive target for thieves and charlatans of all kinds – and something else, less easy to define.
I used to think a lot about Umberto Eco’s description of three types of labyrinth when working out the kind of mystery novels I wanted to write.
First, Eco says, there is the classic labyrinth of Theseus. Theseus enters the labyrinth, arrives at its centre, thanks to Ariadne’s thread, slays the minotaur, then leaves. He does not get lost. Terror is born of the fact that you know there is a minotaur, but you do not know what the minotaur will do.
Then there is the mannerist maze. As Ariadne’s thread is unravelled and followed, the Theseus figure discovers, not a centre, but a kind of tree with many dead ends, many branches leading nowhere. There is an exit, but finding it is a complicated task.
Finally there is the net, which is so constructed that every path can be connected to every other one. The labyrinth has no centre and no one entry or exit. Cyberspace is clearly this third kind of labyrinth. The computer criminal, hacker, virus king etc can be tracked, but the mode of tracking, of following the thread, soon corresponds to becoming lost in the maze, which indeed itself can become the minotaur.
I find this space enormously appealing, though its complexity has far outstripped by ability to comprehend it. Yet what also appeals to me is the traditional structure of a crime investigation – a fictional crime investigation, that is – the progression from a beginning to an end where the criminal is identified and caught. I like the tension that’s created by putting one inside the other, and I strove to create this tension in each of the books comprising my quartet. They represent a sizeable chunk of my writing life and I’m glad they’re going to have new lives of their own.