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12 Jan

Frances Thimann Reviews Jon McGregor’s Short-Stories Talk

At the 5 January 2012 social Jon McGregor gave a talk on short stories. Reviewed by Frances Thimann.

In this very well-attended talk, Jon spoke as both writer and reader of short stories. (He has twice been runner-up in the BBC’s National Short Story competition, and his first collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You is to be published by Bloomsbury next month.) He was particularly concerned to describe how a writer of stories can learn from reading and studying them. He pointed out that because of its brevity and concentration, a story lends itself to close study, and he felt that this was an important way for writers to improve their craft.

He started by defining the short story, and how it differs from the novel. In length, a story may vary from six (!) to 20,000 words, and there may be a huge variety of form, tone, content and intention. A more specific definition might be that it can be read in a single sitting, and is written with that intent. For a writer it is therefore a pure and concentrated piece of artistic work without the wider entertainment and leisure aspects of the novel.

Other differences stem from this:

  1. The writer controls the pace of a short story, whereas with a novel, the reader may stop and start as s/he pleases
  2. The reader will retain information, not necessarily the case with a novel
  3. There is no need to provide narrative closure in a short story, the ending need not be conclusive
  4. The reader will not be expected to read a story again—with a novel, this can be expected
  5. The reader is captive during the time taken to read the story, so the writer can take more risks.

With this in mind, the writer should ‘hit the ground running’—there is no need to explain, provide background information; and the ending may be wherever the writer prefers, there is no need to round things off neatly. S/he may focus relentlessly on one particular element of the story.

To illustrate these points, Jon read a short story by the US writer Donald Barthelme ‘The School’, and referred to a close analysis of it by another US writer George Saunders, which Jon said had been revelatory for him.

It is a ‘pattern’ story (like ‘A Christmas Carol’), in which each repetition in the pattern gives an augmentation, and propels the reader round the track once more. The ending of the story is the final escalation, as important as the punchline of a joke. The writer has to figure out what the story needs as an ending, where it can go, how it can provide this last propulsion to yet another level. (‘It needs to do more than we dreamed it could.’) Much of the excitement for the writer lies in finding this ending.

For the reader, whether or not s/he is a writer, there may be an appreciation of what the writer is doing, as much as an enjoyment of it.

Jon referred to the Guardian website, which has a helpful series of articles by Chris Power: ‘A Brief Survey of the Short Story’, at www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/abriefsurveyoftheshortstory

Jon then spoke about the way individual stories can work as part of a collection. On the whole, if the reader has enjoyed one story, there is no particular wish or incentive to start on another—whereas they will wish to continue with a novel. Collections can get around this by various means, drawing the author through. Connecting principles include:

  1. The ‘Scrapbook’—where stories that have been published elsewhere may be collected for one purpose
  2. Thematic connection (though this can be monotonous)
  3. Narrative linkages—which can be done in various ways
  4. Geographical linkages—providing a composite portrait of a landscape or place. (Jon’s own collection is set in Lincolnshire.)

Lastly, Jon exhibited some unusual examples of short story collections, including a number of beautifully produced stories gathered together in one box, and a collection on the subject of smoking, the volume enclosed in a large mock cigarette case!

The following Q&A session touched on the possibilities of on-line publishing, and the pros and cons of stories being included in general interest magazines.

Jon stated that he was reluctant to talk about the writing process, claiming that he rarely knew what he was doing with a piece at any one time—which I found extremely reassuring!

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