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WRITE AS SHORT AS YOU CAN

Jim Burns

 

Some years ago Penguin published a book of short stories with the title, Sudden Fiction; American Short-Short Stories, the aim being to highlight the virtues of that form. Most of the stories were three or four pages long and some even shorter. I seem to remember, too, a paperback anthology called Short-Shorts compiled from short-short stories publish in Playboy . The cover showed a pair of shapely legs in, inevitably, short shorts. But that didn't detract from the quality of the stories, Playboy in its better days often printing first-rate writers. Some notes in the Penguin book included an interesting comment by a Playboy editor who selected short-shorts for publication. She talked about the problems of finding suitable stories and pointed to the fact that not everybody can write successful ones. Short-short stories may look simple but it can be a deceptive sort of simplicity. They can work like poems, with the meaning not necessarily on the surface, and they can also be used to highlight aspects of human behaviour, and the oddities of everyday experience, to good effect. There is a superb story, "Sunday in the Park" by Bel Kaufman, in the Penguin collection which, in less than three pages, details a minor incident and its consequences, and manages it so effectively that you can't imagine there being a reason for it saying any more than it does.

The Playboy editor also referred to the lack of a market for short-short stories, or vignettes or sketches as some like to call them, and that's still true. Ideally, the short-shorts ought to be in newspapers or weekly and monthly magazines, but how many publications will even consider them, other than as occasional novelties? To their credit one or two women's magazines used to print them, and may still do, though usually with restrictions on style and subject-matter. But if a popular magazine or newspaper publishes a story these days it's by a well-known writer and is of conventional length. The situation with literary magazines is not much better and even they tend to favour stories occupying several pages, as if they're afraid of appearing less than serious if they publish something that runs to a few hundred instead of a few thousand words. And perhaps the readers feel that to admit to liking short-shorts will suggest they have a limited attention span. People sometimes do believe that the bigger it is, the better it is. But Saul Bellow once quoted a Japanese sage who told his disciples, "Write as short as you can," and it is admirable advice, though having struggled with one or two of Bellow's longer novels I tend to think he should have followed it.

I was encouraged to think of the values of short stories generally, and short-shorts in particular, by reading a re-issue of My Neighbours, a collection of stories by Caradoc Evans. He was a Welsh writer and the book was first published in 1920, with some of the stories having first appeared in The English Review and the Saturday Westminster Gazette, the latter described as "an influential evening newspaper." Evans had already fallen foul of Welsh patriots and puritans with his first collection, My People, which had "fifteen stories of greed, cunning and cruelty, set in a south Cardiganshire village maddened by oppressive religion," and My Neighbours got much the same reception. Most of the stories were about the London Welsh and deceit, duplicity, and hypocrisy coloured their activities. Evans made an enemy of the famous Welsh politician, Lloyd George, who described him as a "renegade. Ben Lloyd, a character in some of the stories, pursues his political ambitions by pretending to support the shop workers' union but is soon persuaded by the employers to switch to their side in return for their patronage. And he helps a Welsh businessman to succeed in politics and in return gets to sleep with the man's wife. No-one would have been in any doubt as to who was the real-life model for Ben Lloyd.

I'm not intending a full analysis of the Caradoc Evans stories, and what I want to do most of all is draw attention to their comparative brevity. They are, admittedly, not short-shorts, but they are mostly only a few pages in length (and the type is quite large) so it's easy to imagine how they would fit into the format of magazine or newspaper publication. Of course, Evans was writing at a time when there was still a market for short stories that would reach beyond a purely literary audience. There were dozens, probably hundreds, of short story writers during the heyday of popular magazines, but I doubt that many of them are remembered now. Does anyone still read T. Thompson, who in the 30s and 40s wrote and broadcast numerous short-shorts which used Lancashire dialect (he grew up in Fish Street, Preston, or at least had some links to that address), though not to the point where the language became unintelligible to an outsider. Thompson's work was published in the Manchester Guardian, Lilliput, Picture Post, and Home and Country,and broadcast on the B.B.C., and he was an astute enough writer to know that he needed to keep the local flavour but at the same time not exclude his wider audience from what he was saying. Caradoc Evans did much the same thing when he used the rhythms and inversions of Welsh English-language speakers. It seems unusual when you first come across it but is easy to follow once you get used to it.

Thompson's stories often started with someone walking into a pub or the local barber's shop. Or with a couple of friends meeting on the street. They were anecdotal and dealt with day-to-day events as experienced by ordinary people. And that's where their strength lay. Humour was central to them, and that may have worked against them being taken seriously by literary types. It was Bulwer-Lytton, or rather a character in his novel, Pelham, who said that people assume, "whatever seems gloomy must be profound, and whatever is cheerful must be shallow," but Thompson's little stories could make points about politics and social conditions and human nature just as effectively as supposedly more-serious writing. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," is set in the barber's shop and has the locals arguing about the rights of man. It's done humorously, but the points they raise are fundamental ones about property, work, and licence as opposed to liberty. The wartime "Postman's Knock" movingly captures the atmosphere as people wait for news of their loved ones, and "Work-Proud" refers to Ruskin and has people wondering if he'd ever done any hard, dirty work. In 'Enemy of the People" an old man reminiscences about hard times and being a knocker-up, the person who went around mill-town streets with a long pole which had a wire loop attached to it and was used to rattle on bedroom windows. He recalls children, some as young as ten, going to the mill to start work at six in the morning.

The black writer Langston Hughes used the short-short story format when he created the character of Simple, a resident of Harlem who offered a range of opinions about politics, race, jazz, drugs, housing, and other matters. The stories were published in The New York Post, The Chicago Defender, and the Saturday Review, and ran in book form to between three and six pages. They were pointed and funny, and I would guess they probably reached a far wider audience than serious writers on the same subjects. In one of them Simple talks about his white boss who insists on asking him what "the Negro" wants, to which Simple replies, "I am not THE Negro. I am me." The boss then suggests that Simple "represents the Negro," and he says, "I do not. I represent my own self." And so on in a witty exchange that comes to a conclusion when the white man, realising he's not winning the argument, decides to terminate it by using his authority as a boss. It's a story that says something about black/white relationships but also about bosses and those in authority who, when their supposed liberalism is questioned, soon turn authoritarian!

In another Simple story, "Bop," he talks about the music, and says: "Be-bop music was certainly coloured folks' music - which is why white folks found it so hard to imitate. But there are some few white boys that latched onto it right well," though he adds that even they perhaps don't realise where the sound comes from. According to Simple, it's "From the police beating Negroes' heads. Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old .club says, 'BOP! BOPl ..BE-BOPI ...MOP!... BOP!...That's where Be-bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro's head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it." Humorous? Yes, but there is a serious purpose to it, and it's not too far removed from the actuality of musicians like Miles Davis and Bud Powell and Charlie Parker being beaten by police.

Colour was essential to Langston Hughes's stories, just as Welshness was to Caradoc Evans's work, and the North of England to T. Thompson's. But each writer transcended the limitations that might have resulted from too central a focus. You don't have to be black or Welsh or from Lancashire to appreciate what they're saying, even if the core audience for each writer may have come from those categories. By building the stories around the broad aspects of human nature, with local details added, they could reach a wider audience.

It's the brevity in all the stories I've discussed so far that interests me. I delight in reading short-short stories. There was an American writer named George Milburn who, in the Twenties and Thirties, wrote stories which were collected into a book called Oklahoma Town. Milburn's stories didn't run to more than a few pages each (there were 36 of them in a book of less than 200 pages) and were told in an anecdotal style. But they dealt with some difficult subjects. In "The Nigger-Lover," a white lawyer, acting out of the best of motives, tries to help Negroes and triggers a race riot. In "The Nigger Doctor," an educated black comes to town and sets up in practice as a doctor. He's successful, with blacks and even some whites when a flu epidemic puts a strain on the other doctors, but his success and his confident manner arouses resentment among some of the locals. The situation worsens when he attempts to register to vote. Milburn's way of telling the story is laconic, as if it's by a local who has many of the same prejudices. But he lets the circumstances speak for themselves.

There was an element of humour in many of Milburn's stories, but it could have an edge to it. The situations he described could always turn tragic or violent. A bunch of patriots, aroused when America enters the First World War, try to lynch a local butcher of German extraction because someone says he has a picture of the Kaiser in his house. It turns out to be a tin-type of his father. A young man with religious convictions becomes a conscientious objector and is sent to prison: "Gerald was a pretty boy, and the other prisoners, shut up like that, must have treated him with some brutality. He never was right in the head after the war." When he returns home he becomes a Holy Roller and, much to the disgust of his family, joins in the "singing and shouting and jumping and talking in the Unknown Tongue and rolling on the ground." Religion crops up quite often in George Milburn's stories, as it does in those by Caradoc Evans, and it's interesting that they are the writers with a much more jaundiced view of many of the characters they portray. Langston Hughes and T. Thompson, on the other hand, are much more sympathetic towards the people they write about.

A characteristic of all the work I've discussed is its seeming simplicity. It's a deceptive simplicity, as I pointed out at the start of this piece, and actually involves a great deal of skill to achieve that effect. But a lot of good art does that. It makes thing appear effortless.

I've been deliberately selective with the writers I've referred to, and they just happen to be among those whose talents for the short-short story have impressed me. There are others I could have included, though most of them are long-forgotten and you have to hunt through old magazines and newspapers to find their work. Even the ones who did have a book published are unread now unless, like Caradoc Evans, a publisher with an interest in writers from a specific region thinks it worthwhile putting their stories back into circulation. But, speaking personally, the short-short story seems to have a lot of potential when it is done properly. It's just a pity that there are few, if any, outlets open to writers who want to use the form.