CATHEDRALS OF WORDS

the short story / summer & the land of plenty

National Cathedral © Gail Vitikacs. Used with photographer’s permissionIt’s international Short Story Day today, so a good time to reflect upon the form. Seems to me the short story is experiencing something of a revival in the literary world, perhaps because it lends itself so well to the digital form; perhaps, less optimistically, because it lends itself so well to society’s – apparently – ever decreasing attention span. Whatever the reasons, it’s something to be celebrated. I don’t think we should see short stories as the kids’ version of novels. The short story is a form of its own, with possibilities not available to longer prose. For example it’s an excellent medium for the prose poem, which I particularly enjoy writing, and creates a space to deliver something of an intensity and impact that’s entirely different from the extended playing out of a novel. As author Jackie Kay says, in a particularly good Guardian interview on the form: “If you put it in a field it should still glow because of its intensity.”

The short story form is a new delight for me, which I discovered really only last year studying for my Masters. Prior to this I admit I had rather viewed it as a slightly jaded form, relying on simply saying something clever, some kind of commentary on society, or of course the perennial Twist. The problem with this is that it comes to be expected, and so becomes a little cheap; the short story form felt like a bag of cheap tricks. But it isn’t, not when done right.

What’s exciting about the form of the short story, for me, is its potential to carry far, far beyond itself. I’d never suggest that this is not also a potential for the novel. The difference, as I see it, is that the literary novel is like a cathedral, a vast structure built with incredible skill and precision. There is a completeness to the novel, which again is not to say that it doesn’t go beyond itself. Just as the cathedral provides a space conducive to inspirational experience, whether religious or otherwise, the reader finds meaning, pattern, inspiration within the complex and subtle structure of the novel.

For me, the short story is the atrium of a cathedral. Just as beautiful and complex in itself, but instead of offering a finished space and set of ideas within which to meditate, it offers doorways through which the reader may travel into an unknown and as yet uncreated space. The build and design of the atrium, the shape and number of doorways hint at what the rest of the edifice might be like, but the reader must create it herself. Of course – this is a limited metaphor. The reader of the short story isn’t going to go through the same process as the writer of the novel in terms of building a cathedral. The point is this – that the successful short story is at once a structure in itself, and a revealer of doorways which the author has set up, and invited the reader to travel alone.

The example par excellence of this (as ingrained in me by my MA tutor, Prof. Nicholas Royle) is Franz Kafka’s The Next Village. Just sixty-eight words long, it is a prime example of the potential of language to create a massive space out of such an economy of words. The short story form makes explicit the very strange possibility of language to be more than a sum of its words, just as a cathedral is more than its stones.

The first short story I remember writing was a wickedly and rather gleefully gruesome depiction of a witch, when I was six or seven. Throughout junior school the taste for the gruesome must have stayed with me. I must have been trying to impress the boys even then because in Year Five we had to write a story in response to Walter de la Mare’s The Listener’s, and mine was horrible, full of blood and guts and axe murders. I’d forgotten about that until now. But since then I don’t think I wrote a thing in the way of short stories until given the option to for my MA term papers, and then, writing those, I felt like I’d discovered something new, something I’d not known I was capable of.

Below, then, is the short story I wrote for the module entitled Creativity and Utopia. I’ve got to admit I don’t think it’s my best – but it does feature a cathedral.

Summer and the Land of Plenty

Here in the land of plenty the man whose name is Gray liked to sit for endless moments beneath the coloured glass of the cathedral. Industrial banking was fine. So were the silver engines that spin on concrete lines and the jewelled buildings that pierced the sky; and so were wives and daughters and drinking wine on a pre-paid tab in an electric bar. But here in ancient stone beneath the flickering coloured light Gray could depart the grey heart of winter to find the summer months of somewhere else.

Amongst the wildflowers and overgrown grass Gray opens his eyes to see the sun rise; and whose twin and confidante whose name is synonymous with happy is beside him on a hillside above the world, and the valleys falling out below are filled with mist. The first light of the day is strong and rises to burn their lips and bare feet, and they sit in perfect silence to experience this in wonder. And the weight and lines of age have fallen away and Gray’s eyes are clear and his hair is light and long; and his twin is made of gold and eyes as blue as the sky. They burn long together in this summer.

They walk back to the house through long grass and fields of rippling glittering dandelion clocks, and they drink homemade lemonade and are blossoming like the garden; tall swaying thick-petalled hollyhocks and roses of many colours; a honeysuckle climbs, a jasmine, and the lavender with its pacific scent. The garden is wild; Gray is grown like clover in the grass and the undergrowth grows over, long grass and ivy, creeping. The sky is very blue.

As they lie on the wide back porch watching birds and clouds Gray turns to the other one and says, ‘Do you remember the days of the summer, when we would leave school early and lie here on the wide back porch? We drank the wine we stole from your mother and smoked the cigarettes you stole from your father. And then you threw up in the bush, the one just over there.’
‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘I remember it. But we were okay, and we listened to my parents’ tapes.’
‘Yes,’ says Gray. ‘And the house was full of light and there were big black flies buzzing and beating against the window panes.’
They lie back, and the aeroplanes that pass in the sky above look like ships sailing across a wide blue ocean. Gray remembers how clouds are icebergs out of place and glassy shores. The garden of the abandoned house is saturated, a light that flickered inside; light and coloured glass, flickering. The faintest smell of concrete.

‘It is time to leave,’ the other says.
‘But I no longer want to return,’ replies Gray. He remembers the summers passed away, how he held them so tenderly and felt them so fragile; and every time he said ‘This time for good.’
But,
‘it is too late for that,’ the other one said; and it always was. And Gray returned to the world of plenty, where the cathedral rose from shores of silver, a castle of golden light like the days that had passed away so relentlessly, always so inexorably; but the cathedral would remain while summer and the land of plenty were always already over.

Recommended reading:

Excellent Jackie Kay interview on the form in the Guardian Review

Franz Kafka’s The Next Village

There’s also a vast number of blogs and journals brimming with short stories to be read for free. Some of my favourites include:

Paperbag Writer – funnily enough this is my sister’s blog. As well as short stories it’s full of interesting thoughts about books and writing.

Fiddleblack  – describe themselves on Twitter in the following way: ‘we like self & place, antipastoralism & concept horror’. Really interesting, literary short stories and poetry on their journal.

Squawk Back – again we’ll go with Twitter: ‘We are interested in stories that threaten, provoke, mildly irritate, tickle, inspire, stimulate, penetrate, nauseate, horrify, embarrass and put to shame.’

Black & BLUE – I can’t even describe this journal’s manifesto. Experimental, philosophical … click the link and read for yourself!

Thresholds – International short story forum

Paragraph Planet – Flash fictions precisely 75 words long

Myriad Edition’s Quick Fictions – short stories less than 300 words long, in collaboration with the University of Sussex. You can find mine in the 2011 collection, and I believe there’s a forthcoming mobile app.

*If you have / know of a short story forum or journal not on this list which you think should be, please do leave a comment/email me and I’ll add it.

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