Wednesday 24 July 2013

Not the Best Short Story Ever Written

We've all seen it.

According to legend, Ernest Hemingway came up with this one night in order to win a bet, showing off his mastery of language by writing a story in just six words. It's often wheeled out as an example for new writers to gawp at. And gawp they do, struck dumb by the sheer power of it. The six-word 'masterpiece' is often held up as an example of how leaving things out of a story can sometimes be even more powerful than putting them in.

Type "Hemingway's six-word story" into a search engine and you get hundreds of hits. The vast majority of them are people saying what a magnificent story it is, how powerful, how evocative, how inspirational, etc, etc.

But, does it deserve this adulation? Well, frankly ... no. For a start, it seems pretty unlikely that Hemingway actually wrote it. And while I can't argue about the fact there are six words there, I will metaphorically bang my fists on the table at this point and shout NO WAY IS THIS A STORY!

I accept there's no hard-and-fast definition of what a story actually is. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, some will say. It should be about a character facing a challenge, others will tell you. It needs a moment of epiphany, somebody at the back will whisper. They're all good theories, but there are exceptions to all of these 'rules' that I still consider stories. I'm a traditionalist, in many ways, but essentially my main requirement for a story is that it should be about something happening to someone. And, as a reader, I want to know two things: who that someone is, and what happens.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm going to demand pages of back-story about every character. I can get by without even knowing their name. The important thing is, I want to get a feel for them, for who they are. And just a word or two can be enough to sow that seed. Having that feel for a character is where a story gets its emotional punch from - whether the character is a saint or the most devious scumbag on the planet, you need to feel that sense of connection to care whether they're rewarded or punished. The baby shoes story has no characters in it. It's a card in a newsagents window, or a classified advert. Who cares about that?

The main failing, though, is the 'What happens?' part of the equation. While I will be the first to admit that the main event of the story doesn't have to occur during the narrative itself, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a hint or two about what it might actually have been.

But, Dan, it's obvious - the baby diedThat's why it's such a sad and beautiful story.

Well, apart from being one of my pet hates (...This story needs more drama - I know, I'll chuck a dead baby in! Guaranteed emotional gut-punch!), there's nothing to back that up. True, it's probably the first conclusion most people will jump to, but does it stand up to scrutiny? Not really. What's the first thing people do in times of extreme grief? Personally, I believe there would be a lot of things on the list ahead of cranking up eBay. Your kid dies and all you can think about is trying to get a few quid back on the clothes they won't be wearing? Yeah, no, I don't think so.

So, what else might have happened?

  • The baby (and, why not, the mother too) died and the father distracts himself from the overwhelming grief by selling all their possessions one by one through the local paper.
  • The father died on his way to the hospital and, as he'd chosen the shoes, the mother can't bear to see the baby wearing them.
  • The shoes were bought by the grandparents, but due to a row about what the baby will be called, the parents have shut them out of the baby's life and refused to accept their gift.
  • The baby was born with no feet.
  • The shoes are liquidation stock from a baby boutique that's gone out of business.
  • The baby was born with enormous feet.
  • The shoes are owned by a shoe fetishist who's finally overcome his addiction to tiny footwear.
  • There never was a baby - it was all part of an elaborate practical joke that got out of hand and just returning the gifts would be really awkward.
Science Fiction:
  • The baby turns out to be an alien, with a writhing mass of tentacles instead of legs. The parents are nonetheless smitten, and raise the baby as their own, but don't need the shoes.
  • The baby's been born in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and, thanks to the radiation poisoning, has three legs, so a pair of shoes isn't much use.
  • The notice in the newsagents window is a coded message for a secret agent, and has nothing at all to do with shoes or babies.
  • The baby shoes are shoes made from babies.
  • The mother is the Little Mermaid, and when her first child arrives she discovers the magic potion that gave her her legs doesn't extend to her offspring, who's born sporting a fishy tale.
  • Who buys shoes for a baby, anyway? They can't walk, they don't need shoes. The baby wears booties and everyone's happy.
  • The shoes were a gift and got lost in the post. When they turned up five years later, nobody in the house needed them.
  • The parents are obsessed with designer brands and the shoes were a present from a well-meaning but less label-conscious relative.

... and I'm sure there are hundreds of other possible explanations. But that's the beauty of it, people might claim. It can be all these and more. What a wonderful story! No, that's not how a story works. In a story, you might not know exactly what's happened, but you do need a reasonable idea of what it might be that's floating there, hazily, just outside the narrative. The baby shoes piece might well lend itself to the ideas above and more, but that makes it a good writing prompt, not a good story.

To bring things to a close, I'll leave you with something Hemingway did write (in his diary), and though it's more than six words long, it has character, drama, and is an infinitely better story than Baby Shoes:

Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Review: "Freaks!" by Nik Perring & Caroline Smailes

I've read quite a few books recently and I thought I would at least try to post reviews for some of them. I've no idea whether this is useful to anybody, as the reviews category of this blog seems to attract far fewer comments than other topics, but hopefully they at least of moderate interest to some of my readers. Let me know if not, and I'll stop doing them.

Freaks! by Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes was part of a promotion recently, with various ebooks published by The Friday Project available free of charge. The giveaway's over now, but the ebook version is still available for a very reasonable 99p. I'd recommend getting the paperback, though, as I can't imagine it working quite as well on a screen.

Anyway, seeing this book on the list reminded me that I hadn't read it properly. I'd dipped in to it but I'd had other stuff on the go at the time and I'd put it on the bookshelf for later. Later, it turned out, was a couple of weeks ago.

Freaks! is a collection of very short stories. There are 50 of them in around 130 pages, so it's probably accurate to describe them as flash fiction. The stories are ostensibly united by a theme of superpowers, but in truth they're all about 'otherness', that sense of being different. It's a collection dedicated to "all who, if only for a moment, felt that they didn't belong." Which is pretty much all of us, at some point, right? I was interested in this book because I enjoyed Nik's "Not So Perfect", I'm getting to know Caroline's work, and I've always been intrigued by collaborative writing.

The superpowers in the stories vary. Some are 'real', others are metaphorical or imagined. In keeping with the theme, the stories are illustrated in classic comic book style by Darren Craske, who is an author himself, although not somebody whose work I'm familiar with (I'll aim to address that soon). These illustrations suit the stories perfectly and bring the characters to life by adding another dimension to the often sparse descriptions.

I really enjoyed the book. There are some wildly imaginative scenarios in there, but also some very keenly observed details from universal experiences, or at least ones you can easily relate to. There's a fair bit of sex, and not a lot of it is terribly romantic; in fact many of the stories are quite gritty and deal unflinchingly with the seedier side of life. There's also joy and loss and sadness and longing. One of my favourites was 'Sixteen', one of the longer stories in the book, which conjures up perfectly those awkward teenage dates where you're not at all sure of yourself, and the terrifying possibility occurs to you that the apparently normal things you've been doing for years with your family might seem utterly bizarre to outsiders. Many of the others also triggered that little smile and nod of recognition, which is one of reading's greatest pleasures.

With 50 stories on offer, it would be pretty astonishing if I liked them all. The only criticism I have of some of the stories is a complaint I commonly have with flash fiction - they're just that little bit too slight. Several of these tales seem like a good idea that hasn't been fleshed out, or perhaps an intro for a longer story. There's enough there to get the concept off the ground, and then ... they stop. The first story's called The Photocopier, about a woman who can make identical copies of herself at will, and the it's written from the perspective of the woman's daughter, who may or may not have inherited the same power. There's nothing actually wrong with the story, but I felt it was lacking something because the 'clones' of the woman just seemed to hang around, waiting to see whether her (their?) daughter would be able to do it or not. When the woman multiplied, I thought it might be a metaphor for being a busy mum - that thing of having to be in more than one place at once, needing more than one pair of hands, etc - but they didn't seem to do anything in particular, so I'm not sure what the intention behind her multiplication actually was. I probably missed something.

Another story concerns a boy who finds he has the ability to speak to bees, after accidentally swallowing one. But the story ends without him actually saying a word. Some flash enthusiasts will insist the key to super-short fiction is that the reader has to fill in the gaps, and I'd agree to some extent, but - for me - this kind of gap is too big. It's more like a writing prompt: "Imagine you could talk to insects..." And off you go. I'm left wishing that whichever of the pair wrote it had pushed it just that little bit further.

But these are minor niggles and to be honest there is such a variety of stories here that the odd misfire doesn't detract from the overall fun of the book. The stories are short, sharp, strange, and you never know whether they'll hug you or slap you in the face. Definitely worth a look.