The staying power of stories

I’ve written before about the impact of good short fiction, the meteorite punch in your heart, or mind – or better yet, both – as you read. But can anyone honestly say that they remember every single short story they’ve ever read? (Unless they’ve only read five, and have a photographic memory.) Some craters are punched deeper than others. Some stories are just a shower of pretty lights in the sky, enjoyed while the sparkle lasts, until eclipsed by other stories.

Bearing in mind that of course my opinion is entirely subjective, here is a selection of some of my favourite short stories, the ones that have stayed.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork: Helen Dunmore Ice Cream (Penguin 2001)

Set in a world where eugenic health means that natural conception is outlawed, and a lawful pregnancy needs a mortgage to fund it, it was perhaps a mistake to read this one when I was pregnant. It’s a powerful story, and a hopeful one, strongly told. I love it.

The Gernsback Continuum: William Gibson Burning Chrome (Grafton 1988)

A photographer is commissioned to document a future that was never realised, the science fiction utopia promised by 1930s American design and pulp fiction covers, the Hollywood gothic of Ming the Merciless. And then the veil between that lost future’s aesthetic, and the modern now begins to tear; Metropolis bleeds through. If you loved Neuromancer, read this collection.

Other Kingdom: E.M.Forster Selected Stories (Penguin 2001)

A girl is given the deed to a woodland by her fiance’s father. Her fiance does not understand her nature, seeking to possess her, fence in her freedom. In love as much with the silvan spirit of classicism as with him, she escapes her jealous lover in a way he will never understand. If you know your myths, think of Apollo and Daphne.

The Piper At The Gates of Dawn: Kenneth Grahame The Wind In The Willows (Egmont 1971)

Strictly speaking this isn’t a short story per se, but I read it originally in a long disintegrated animal stories anthology, before I was given my own copy of The Wind In The Willows in 1979. And it is beautiful, and mystical, and the poetic magic in it never fails to move me. Also, today is Midsummer, so it is only fitting that I should mention it now.

The Woman on the Dunes: Anais Nin A Model And Other Stories (Penguin 1995)

This was the first erotica I ever read, at the tender age of 23. My god but I was innocent then! But this is beautiful, tender, and poetic. And, obviously, erotic.

Kew Gardens: Virginia Woolf A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction (Vintage 2003)

An afternoon in Kew Gardens: impressionistic, Modern, beautiful, strange. It has haunted me, I think.

Pipes: Etgar Keret The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories (Toby Press 2004)

I read this on the train from Paddington. I cried. The girl next to me tried to pretend that I wasn’t there, despite the fact that I cried oh so discreetly. It’s about disappearing, and finding a way into happiness. It is hopeful, and wistful and, wonderful. And it breaks my heart.

The Cat Lover: Kate Atkinson Not The End Of The World (Black Swan 2003)

I love this whole collection, where the stories are set in the here and now, while figures from Greek myth wander about and interfere. In this one, a stray cat takes over a woman’s life, in so many mythological ways… Just fabulous.

Fifty Percent One/Fifty Percent Two: Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes Freaks (The Friday project 2012)

Two heartbreaks, a misunderstanding, a not-good-enough chance. In a collection about small  – and not so small –  strangenesses, this one, for me stood out. Tender and hopeless and hurting, yet I don’t think it does encapsulate the superpower it says on the tin, the power to amplify memories. It doesn’t need to. That kind of pain never goes away. But, read it, read all of it, and judge for yourselves. You won’t regret it.

The Tiger’s Bride: Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber (Vintage 2006)

A variant on the story of Beauty And The Beast, told in language so rich it’s almost distracting. Lusciously, seductively finessed.

Snow, Glass, Apples: Neil Gaiman Smoke And Mirrors (Headline 1999)

A retelling of Snow White, turned inside out and upside down, as only Neil Gaiman can, with a debt to Angela Carter. Beautiful and disturbing, by possibly my favourite living author.

So. I’ve shown you mine. It’s your turn to show me yours. What are some of your favourite short stories?


Misuse of Language

Misuse of language is one of my pet hates. So are the Halifax adverts. And my husband’s snoring. And people buying books who count out their money onto the counter, then hold out their hand for the change; that makes me seethe inwardly. But I digress.

Misuse of language; it happens all the time, mostly quite innocently, cropping up in conversation. But then there are those misused written words, printed words, published words. They have less excuse; they are deliberate, or at the very least, thoughtless. Writers beware! It’s one thing to come across wrong words in an early draft of a chapter or short story  – although  I have come across words misused where quite clearly the context demands the antonym, and I have wondered… but I’m digressing again. The specific lexical instance that has brought me to this point occurred in last Saturday’s* Telegraph Review Magazine (I did search for the article online, but got bored looking, frankly). The article was an interview with Tom Hanks, about the new series he has produced with Steven Spielberg, The Pacific. I quote from the second introductory paragraph;

“Between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the mornings in August 1945 when atom bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…”

(Will Lawrence, Telegraph Review, 27 March 2010)

I have a problem with this. Bombs do not simply fall passively from the sky. They are actively dropped. Even in the context of an article about American bravery against an alien culture** – the Imperial Army’s refusal to surrender, kill or be killed was the only order – this curious evasion of culpability stands out. Yes, Japan attacked first. But they attacked the US Fleet. By dropping two atom bombs on two cities, the US caused an unthinkable amount of collateral damage, and changed the world forever. You might as well say that the RAF flew over Dresden, which then coincidentally spontaneously combusted. Writers beware – we are responsible for how the past is written for the future to read. We must choose our words with care, lest we forget, and the truth be obscured from our children.

* I only caught up with reading the Review Magazine today, owing to last weekend’s loss to the migraine.

**And don’t get me started on classic Western narcissism, anything Occidental being good, everything Oriental, mad. Edward Said put it so beautifully, so concisely, so eruditely, in his book Orientalism, and I have just realised that I have lost my copy – HORRORS!

Well, what do you know?

More to the point, what do I know? After deciding on no more short story submissions, I received an email today from one of the editors of an e-zine; not an acceptance, but a morsel of constructive criticism, and a suggestion that I might resubmit, if I decide to rework the piece, to her personally. And this for a story that has been rejected 7 times previously. YAY! Someone out there likes my writing enough to give me a chance at another shot at it!  A small step forward, a real step forward. I did feel, when I started sending this piece out, that I should give it 9 lives. Looks like its 8th might not be done with yet.

A decision born of disappointment

I can no longer be bothered to count the number of rejections I’ve had for short story submissions. It is perfectly natural to feel demoralised, and disheartened, and I freely admit to both of these conditions. It is demoralising to receive a form rejection attachment from the editor, suggesting that I need to read more, and avoid clichés such as ‘he was a total psychopath’. (I have a first class honours in English Literature for heaven’s sake; I’ve been reading widely and avidly since I was two years old – how many two year-olds have YOU known with ‘superfluous’, and ‘soporific’ in their vocabulary? – not that they would know this. The premise of the story in question takes a what if scenario; what if Nick Bottom fathered a child on Titania – and I promise you, there’s not a psychopath in sight.) I can’t help feeling that such sweeping generalisations in rejection do writers no favours. I know editors are an overworked underpaid bunch, with more stories to read than there are hours in a day, BUT… I also know that it is – up to a point –  a numbers game, finding someone out there who thinks my writing might be worth the gamble of publishing. I know that I have a long way to go, working at writing, refining it. There are any number of articles published in print and online that tell me this; the admirable @Bubblecow tweets links to such things everyday.  Some of the advice is conflicting – it is a minefield, trying to find what to do, and what not to do, whilst trying to keep confidence in my writing. I have been told I’m good at it, BUT… I’m paying my dues, I know. I know also that there are no guarantees in what I’m attempting to achieve. BUT… there’s only so much banging my head against the wall I can take. I’m not Bart Simpson, I’m not going to keep reaching for the cake and suffer electrocution.

So. I keep writing, because how else will I learn? Writing is like living, a heuristic process. But no more short stories, since they don’t seem to be my thing. Or at least, no more short stories with a view to sending them out alone into the world. No. I’ll finish the vengeance kick story I’m writing, and then it’s back to my novel. I don’t have time to be demoralised – there’s too much to be done. And I am very determined.

(It was reading Beatrix Potter that gave me this linguistic head-start, in case you were wondering.)