Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Writers on Writing – Part 5

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 17, 2012

Of all the forms of writing, I love short stories the most for the extraordinary innovation, creativity and originality they have produced. I have a special affection for them as they give me enormous joy and relief from bouts of boredom and listlessness that are my lot from time to time. In utilitarian terms too, I like them for the advantage of modularity they carry with them. Here are some deep and brilliant insights on the craft of short story writing from three of the greatest short story writers of our times viz. William Trevor, Frank O Connor and Mavis Gallant.   ( Source: Paris Review Magazine)

INTERVIEWER: Why do you prefer the short story for your medium?

FRANK O’CONNOR: Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry—I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner has said, “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” What do you think about this?

FRANK O’CONNOR: I’d love to console myself, it’s that neat—it sounds absolutely perfect except that it implies, as from a short-story writer, that the novel is just an easy sort of thing that you slide gently into, whereas, in fact, my own experience with the novel is that it was always too difficult for me to do. At least to do a novel like Pride and Prejudice requires something more than to be a failed B.A. or a failed poet or a failed short-story writer, or a failed anything else. Creating in the novel a sense of continuing life is the thing. We don’t have that problem in the short story, where you merely suggest continuing life. In the novel, you have to create it, and that explains one of my quarrels with modern novels. Even a novel like As I Lay Dying, which I admire enormously, is not a novel at all, it’s a short story. To me a novel is something that’s built around the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters. When I see a novel that’s supposed to take place in twenty-four hours, I just wonder why the man padded out the short story.

 INTERVIEWER: Yeats said, “O’Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.” What do you think of Chekhov?

 FRANK O’CONNOR: Oh, naturally I admire Chekhov extravagantly; I think every short-story writer does. He’s inimitable, a person to read and admire and worship—but never, never, never to imitate. He’s got all the most extraordinary technical devices, and the moment you start imitating him without those technical devices, you fall into a sort of rambling narrative, as I think even a good story writer like Katherine Mansfield did. She sees that Chekhov apparently constructs a story without episodic interest, so she decides that if she constructs a story without episodic interest it will be equally good. It isn’t. What she forgets is that Chekhov had a long career as a journalist, as a writer for comic magazines, writing squibs, writing vaudevilles, and he had learned the art very, very early of maintaining interest, of creating a bony structure. It’s only concealed in the later work. They think they can do without that bony structure, but they’re all wrong

 INTERVIEWER : What is your definition of a short story?

 WILLIAM TREVOR: I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

 INTERVIEWER: You have never created a hero. Why is that?

WILLIAM TREVOR: Because I find them dull. Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, “Short stories are about little people,” and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success.

 INTERVIEWER: What do you think about the state of the short story?

MAVIS GALLANT: With few exceptions, books of short stories seldom sell well. Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other. A book of stories is not a novel. Someone once said to me, “Katherine Mansfield died before she was ready to write a novel. Perhaps she would never have been ready.” I thought that was just stupid.

INTERVIEWER: In the past you’ve said that Anton Chekhov is the writer who most strongly influenced your writing and Eudora Welty the contemporary writer you most admire. Could you elaborate?

 MAVIS GALLANT: Because one is asked the same question all the time one almost unconsciously develops answers that are passe-partout but undoubtedly incomplete. About Chekhov: I have nearly no idea what influence was brought to bear. I discovered Chekhov young, in the Constance Garnett translation. I still read him—there seems to be always some volume or other lying about with a marker in it. But the same is true of Proust. I wonder if any writer can say where an influence came in. I now think influence is almost anything one admired when young. Perhaps one was influenced without knowing it by writers one later ceased to admire. Not long ago I heard a writer say he disliked Hemingway when, in fact, his work wouldn’t exist in its present form if Hemingway had not come first. About Eudora Welty: I discovered her work in my twenties. I reread her now with the same pleasure and admiration.

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