Short fictions

2013-06-28-EAPoe2I’ve never really got to grips with short stories. It wasn’t like I didn’t try. My first literary hero was Edgar Allen Poe, and I spent my mid-teens writing tales which delighted in darkness and imagination. I had a favourite English teacher— a neat and dapper man who smoked Marlboro Reds and drove a 2CV— who I trusted as my first critical reader. He was very patient with me, and read my stories during his lunch break, giving me marks for each one, even though nothing would contribute to my coursework.

Later on, I would discover poetry- specifically The Penguin Book of penguinAmerVerseAmerican Verse, the one with the glorious Pop Art cover- and I would trace down all its leads, and follow the forks in the road. I only returned to short fiction again years later, while I was in a prolonged sulk with poetry, when I couldn’t read it or respond to it, when I hated it all, particularly my own version of it. I’d written a novel, and I figured that the best novelists were failed poets anyway. I was qualified for the task.

When I look over the stories I wrote during this time, I’m pleased with moments of character, or description, but the overall dramatic action remains too elusive and unformed. I’d read Flannery O’Connor, like everyone should, but somehow must have felt that her advice for students of the short story didn’t apply to me:

‘[They] think that a short story is an incomplete action in which a very little is shown and a great deal suggested, and they think you suggest something by leaving it out. It’s very hard to disabuse a student of this notion, because he thinks that when he leaves something out, he’s being subtle; and when you tell him that he has to put something in before anything can be there, he thinks you’re an insensitive idiot.’

Any writer of short stories needs that tattooed on their arm. (If they have a long arm, and they want it tattoo-ed there).

Kafka1906Recently, though, I rediscovered some short fiction which I must have written about eight or so years ago. In part, this happened while trying to track down some old publications, which I guess is a writer’s equivalent of mooning over photos of your first love. One story had escaped even the internet’s memory, which must be a new standard for obscurity. Anyway, I did my bit to rescue it from the abyss, and posted it on the blog. While looking for it, I discovered some other, similar, fragments, which I had thought that I’d lost. My model for these pieces was Kafka’s short, short fiction, particularly the incredible ‘Reflections for Gentlemen Jockeys‘.

For all their rawness, these fictions strike me as more honest than the straight stories I’ve tried to write. Halfway between poems and narrative, they are little style pieces, pitched directly from the mind and the heart. I’m going to post them here because it’s unlikely they would find a home in any other publication. Mainly, though, it’s because they seem made for blog posts, forgotten things brought back into the light.

© Daniel Bennett

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12 thoughts on “Short fictions

  1. Obviously novels, short stories and poetry share a common currency: words. Poems however seem to occupy a place similar to spells or prayers. Perhaps they are beyond the economic constraints of ‘selling’ literature; more akin to midnight psychological confessions (whether that is Emily Dickinson’s hidden word horde or Berryman’s hungover self analysis.) Kafka is one of the few writers who grow in pertinence as time passes. Probably because he is very, very funny.

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    1. Yes, I’d agree that poetry and short fiction are forms separated by their common medium. That’s not to say that there can’t be some commerce between them, but I think that finally they work in opposite ways. Poetry is often about crystallising a moment. A short story needs to give the moment a sense of dynamism. Poetry is more like painting than it is like a short story. Since writing this blog I’ve realised how much I’ve always looked to writing to provide a sense of the visual, but if you concentrate on the visual too much, it’s always at the expense of the dramatic.

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      1. Can you think of anyone that can do both successfully? I’m not much of a fan of Dylan Thomas’s short stories as they fail on the same terms that his poetry succeeds. Conversely I don’t think Raymond Carver’s poems work really, perhaps that has something to do with the input of Gordon Lish on the stories . I’m pretty sure O’Connor didn’t go anywhere near poetry at all!

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      2. I’d say that Borges wrote in both forms to the same level, but I’m reading him a lot right now, and besides that brings in the messy issue of translation. I have a soft spot for Carver’s poetry, but that’s a case of personal reflection on the time I read it overriding critical judgement. (I’ve been planning a full post on his poetry, so maybe I should do that next). It’s a good point that there are few other obvious candidates (maybe Bukowski?) which makes me think that the impulse for brevity that both forms entail, ends up being channelled in distinct ways.

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    1. Yes I read that article and liked it very much. I love Poe but I’ve never really got the poetry. I don’t think it has really stood the test of time although he was fairly influential with Symbolists like Mallarme.

      Cheever is an unknown to me though I did read The Swimmer. One of those American writers, like Gass, Malamud, Barth and Jackson, who seem to have been junked from common consciousness as soon as they died (though Shirley Jackson seems to be having a bit of a comeback now).

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    1. Thanks for sharing the article. It’s very interesting. I think I probably sit with Eliot on Poe’s poetry. I can admire some of the strangeness to the lyrics, and put it in the context of what it attempted and who it influenced. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it has ‘lasted’ very well. I know that’s an untidy definition, bringing with it all sorts of problems, particularly about whether there is an orthodox contemporary perspective in which it doesn’t fit. But that’s where I am. I wouldn’t want to be closed minded about it though, so I will probably look over some of the poems again at some stage.

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      1. I agree but I don’t think a lot of poetry from that era has lasted very well either. Baudelaire at least picked up the baton and moved it swiftly along. Good to correspond with you after all these years. I’ve enjoyed the recent prose pieces you have posted.

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