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We need to talk about stories

By Aamer Hussein 2014-03-16
WAS running home from the newsagents` two evenings ago when I bumped into my neighbour Ben Okri, the Nigerian writer, whom Pye known for 25 years. We talked about our travels and I said Pd been in Lahore last week. We talked about new books and I told him I`d just come home with copies of my new book, The Swan`s Wife. `Novel?` He asked.

`No, more stories,` I replied. `Must be your fourth?` He raised an eyebrow. (He`s a prizewinning short storywriter, by the way, but best known for his novels.) `No, my fifth,` I said, `or my sixth or seventh, depending on how we count ...` The eyebrow went up higher. `Far too long since we last met,` he said. `We need to sit down and talk about stories.

That eyebrow always goes up when we talk about stories, because to publish a collection of them today in England and elsewhere is a chore. (A novel please, say my friendly Italian and British publishers). And when you produce a fifth collection especially after a stint as a novelist you`re seen to be running some strange marathon in slow motion. It had been seven years since I published my last volume of short fiction. The new one only came into being because of the enthusiasm of my Pakistani readers, in particular the publishers in Lahore who commissioned it and waited patiently (yes, I need that cliché here) while I went way over my deadline.

Yet writers feel passionate about stories, even when the pressures of the publishing industry push them towards the longer form.

Hanan al-Shaykh, who writes in Arabic but is hugely well known in English translation, is finishing a new novel. `As a writer I like both forms equally,` she says as we sit in a windy square on a late winter day. `The novel for me is like taking a distant journey, to a place you`ll stay in for a long while, where you`ll meet lots of new people and discover new landscapes. But when I want to get something off my chest, it`s the story I prefer.

Though her novels are enormously successful, Hanan is also an exquisite writer of stories, which she prefers to keep short. (I remember how, when we first started to read each other`s work, she would complain that I occasionally went on for too long. This time, while reading my new book in manuscript, she doesn`t. We agree that when a story`s more than 20 pages long, it begins to meander, and enter that indefinite terrain of the tautologically named long short story.) Her last book was in a hybrid genre: she rewrote the One Thousand and One Nights, which is of course the world`s best known collection of profane or secular stories. Yet it has the frame story of Shehrzad that holds its disparate elements together and unifies the whole. So what does she prefer to read? `Oh, short stories!` she says. `There`s an honesty about the story that can`t be surpassed it`s like an arrow, it comes straight to its target.

This conflation of brevity and honesty is echoed by Asad Jafri, a promising youngcalligrapher and poet in his 20s, who has been reading my stories in Urdu. As a reader, he admires Manto and Chughtai and Ghulam Abbas; as a budding practitioner, he is drawn to the short story because he doesn`t like excessive verbiage. Writing to me from Dubai in our mother tongue, he says:`The short story is written in real time, because it`s closer to the truth; whereas you can speed up the novel or decrease its rhythms at will, as its large cast of characters allows you to stretch it out to suit its invented situation or its reflections of social reality or history, as the case may be. But because of the short story`s close relationshipto real life, it doesn`t carry the weight of exaggeration or embellishment.

Honesty and concision: two qualities, moral and aesthetic, in which the short story is held to excel. But these are voices who position themselves outside the Anglophone sphere in cultures in which the short story is a living and vital genre. Carole Smith, who wrote a novel for her PhD, publishes both poems and stories but seems more at ease in the latter form (she has also co-translated some of my stories from Urdu), perhaps because of the easy access it allows via literary journals to readers. She sees experimentation and invention, not honesty and realism, as hallmarks of the form, citing Borges and Lydia Davis among many others and exaggeration isn`t an element she`d discard, though she locates herself in the tradition of the comedy of manners.

So who are the short story writers we`re reading today in England? They`re mostly American; there are, for instance, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff. Last year, the aforementioned Davis came in as a kind of dark horse for the Man Booker international award. Not only is Davis, who is also a translator, best known for her short fiction, but from the testimonies of her readers (including my MA students at Southampton, who read her on their short story module) she`s emulated by apprentices and admired most of all for her very short pieces, some of which, just a few lines long, resemble riddles, syllogisms or prose poems. But would an entire collection of whimsical pieces have brought her equal renown? No, say her readers: the fact that she can play in a variety of genres gives the short pieces their unique impact.Stories are regularly taught to budding writers as the core element of their craft. But Davis and a handful of others, mostly in the US, are among the minority who remain devoted to practising the form. Gone are the times when a Borges or a Carver or a Paley ignored the novel with panache. Today it is often belated recognition with a literary prize, or a death, that sends us off to our shelves in search of forgotten volumes of short fiction.

The death of Mavis Gallant, a writer I consider the last of the great 20th century short story writers in English, occasioned a flurry of obituaries, including one by Jhumpa Lahiri,who was an admirer. Like Grace Paley, her close contemporary, Gallant stayed with the form all her life, though (unlike Paley`s) many of her stories did begin to veer towards the novella. Just as many, however, stay within that 20-page limit with which, by rule of thumb, practitioners define the `short` story.

Not so, however, those of her fellowCanadian Alice Munro, whose fictions often seem to defy temporal and sequential gravity.

When she won the Nobel, we took to streets to acclaim the victory of form, but do Munro`s stories really fit the bill for the lover of the short story? Not for me which isn`t to deny that for those who love her she is undoubtedly stellar; but for an inveterate lover of the short story her collections, full of rambling stories that in France or Italy would be marketed as novels, don`t have the immediacy that sends the arrow Hanan talks about directly into our hearts.

But perhaps if her fictions were marketed singly they would. I remember buying Annie Proulx`s Brokeback Mountain in a tiny little edition and being shocked at how it condensed, in its short span, the entire trajectory of a novel. Yet when it appeared in a full collection it wasn`t even novella length. In the same way, brief works by Maeve Brennan and Arthur Miller were presented in book form, probably on the principle that we do, as we should, of ten discover and relish stories singly; mostly in journals and now increasingly on websites devoted to short fiction.

My own story,`Puzzled Angels,` was intended as the title piece of a new collection, but logistics, my editor`s enthusiasm and the late addition of `Usman`s Song,` a story composed of a cycle of fables, as a prologue, allowed us to publish the work as a novella, Another Gulmohar Tree (when a story is published singly it becomes a novella; in a collection it would be clumsily defined as a long short story). I`m still happy to hear it described as a book of linked stories, which it very occasionally is, by lovers of short fiction.

I think I should save this concept of linked stories for another occasion as I`m bothered by the notion, particularly because the same narrators or their hamzad at times appear in my collections; this often leads to questions about my intentions, and to a feeling of guilt. (I`m also bothered by the fact that while novelists are novelists and poets are poets, there is no term for our breed; unlike in Urdu, where we are called, quite honourably, afsana nigar.) I don`t make deliberate links between my stories: each of these usually emerges complete, but later an image or a line from a finished work might recur to nag me, or a character return to haunt me, until, in Hanan`s words, I get the story off my chest and realise I`ve written a sequel (or a prequel).

Stories, like poems, might follow on from each other.

But collections shouldn`t be straitjackets which impose either unity of theme or subject. I`m a restless writer who sees the story as a way of delving into conflicting realities while I constantly try to rise to the multiple challenges of form. Yet when we are putting together a collection we become aware of a progression of thought and feeling that isn`t actually linear, as stories that seem to echo each other might be written months or even years apart, while fictions written during a productive burst might have no stylistic or thematic resemblance.(I remember working on the original Urdu versions of `The Swan`s Wife` and `The Entrepreneurs` simultaneously, searching my memoryvaults for one and rocking with glee while I invented voices and dialogues for the other.) Bangladeshi novelist Anis Ahmed, who began as a short story writer with Goodnight, Mr Kissinger, a collection of stories set in his native Dhaka, tells me he opted for a Joycean unity of place and a chronological structure for his book that moves from extreme youth to age in the lives of the city and its protagonists. I`m actually quite happy with a certain promiscuity of approach, but arrangements are, after all arrangements.

I talk about this to my friend Mimi Khalvati, a Tehranborn British poet renowned for her range and her formal dexterity, from whom I`ve learnt a lot about sequence and order. As a reader, she loves the short story, not least because she recognises in it a proximity to poetry.`There`s a huge pleasure in reading poems and stories singly, but writings echo and reflect upon each other in a collection,` she says over coffee on a cool March evening. `As in a collection of poems, resonances emerge, along with stylistic and thematic unities that the author might not even be initially aware of. As a poet, I often discard poems from a collection at the last moment because they just don`t fit.` I dropped two new stories from my book, too, I tell her. I respond to her observation that in The Swan`s Wife the stories address each other across stylistic differences, with themes of old age and marriage, faith and doubt, love and separation and migration and longing. She`d planned to read it in one sitting, she says, but it took her, instead, a day and a night.

I often tell readers that in a good selection of stories you can choose one to read at will and don`t have to follow the order of the list of contents I often don`t.

Each story should lead you into an entirely new world, or at least a self-contained room in a well-designed house. Yet there is a pleasure in following a certain sequence as you read which you imagine might offer an interpretive key to the process of composition; I increasingly agree, though in a quizzical way, about this with Mimi. But should we gulp down a collection in a single sitting? I often think not. Linger, I say: a good collection of poetry often takes me longer to read than a long novel; and a collection of stories stays beside me for almost as long. So I end with a few lines from the peerless Gallant in support of my cause: `Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.` E