Byline: Rhys Davies
In the fast-moving world we live in, it might be said that the short story is suited to our hectic lifestyles.
Next month a weekend will be dedicated to exploring the often misunderstood genre.
The Rhys Davies Short Story Conference, which takes place at Swansea University, is organised by The Rhys Davies Trust in partnership with Literature Wales and Swansea University.
The first event of its kind in the UK, it seeks to bring short story writing to a national audience.
Taking the reputation of one of Wales' most renowned short story writers - Rhys Davies - as a starting point, it provides an opportunity to enjoy the craft of the short story.
There will be a wide-ranging programme of talks, panel sessions, masterclasses and performances all centred on the short story, both modern and traditional.
The three-day event will feature talks and workshops from a line-up of writers, including Edna O'Brien, Will Self, Tessa Hadley, Janice Galloway, Meic Stephens, Dai Smith, Claire Keegan, Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Shena Mackay, Jon Gower and more.
Here some of them share their craft...
Tessa Hadley Human beings think in short story shapes. The short story comes naturally to us. A joke, or a scrap of news, or a bit of gossip - all these are short stories in embryo. So it's surprising that even passionate readers are sometimes wary of the short form. Perhaps reading short stories is more strenuous than reading a long novel - because you have to keep starting over again, plunging with each new beginning into a new place with a new set of rules. But that strenuousness is the joy of the form too. Because stories are short we have to read carefully, taking in every detail because everything counts. Each story is its own miniature adventure, posing its own question. It could be a thought experiment by Kafka: a man wakes up and finds himself transformed into a giant insect. Or it could be a psychological puzzle, like the one in Irish writer John McGahern's Gold Watch, where the watch becomes a sign for the half-hidden rage between a father and a son. There are no rules to dictate how short a story has to be. There are masterpieces by Borges which take up half a page, and then there are masterpieces by Alice Munro - winding around their mysterious core - which feel as capacious as worlds.
Writing a short story can feel wonderfully irresponsible; there's so much less heavy engineering than in writing a novel. What matters is concentration - every element has to matter, and earn its place. A story may focus on something small or on one particular moment - but we have to feel the whole weight of the world behind it. As Nadine Gordimer says, a good story should "burn a hole in the page".
Will Self I began by writing short stories because, frankly, the novel form intimidated me. Also, many of the writers I really admired - Chekov, Kafka, Borges, Saki, Mansfield, Joyce - had produced short form work that I found as exhilarating as any novel. In one way the short story seems to me to be the novel stripped of all excess baggage - useless and unreal narrative, disposable sub-plots, implausible additional characters - and repurposed as a surgical strike on the very gory stuff of life. The best short stories so completely evoke mood, situation, setting and the subtle veillities of the human psyche, that they seem to render long-form fiction otiose. Of course, 25 years and 10 novels further down the line I feel slightly different about this; now I think the two forms are simply different - novels aim to be complete worlds - attempted homomorphs either of this world (whatever that may be), or some other. Short stories, by contrast, are when well done, synechdochal in form, offering a part of the world in lieu of the whole, and the whole of themselves in place of a part of the world. I still love to write short stories - I have a strange sort of Post-It note billboard in my office that has ideas for perhaps 200 or 300 short stories on it. Every year I tell myself I will sit down and dedicate my whole writing time to the form again - I have published six collections of short stories in the past and several novellas - but every year another novel seems to come knocking, on one door requesting that it be written; while the publishers come knocking on the other door, telling me that only novels, nowadays, sell. Still, one day it will happen - I cannot survive indefinitely with this great host of the unborn straining my mind-belly...
Rachel Trezise As Frank O'Connor had it, the short story is the province of "the little man who represents neither hero nor antihero but a member of some submerged population group marginalised by a society that offers no goals and no answers". The characters in my first collection are certainly that; young people in the South Wales Valleys confused about their anglicised identity. The characters in my second collection too; migrants, immigrants and travellers, displaced and disconnected. As a writer concerned with life's splendid minutiae, the short story is where I put the debris, dilemmas and difficult characters that cannot be tamed into the slick and epic narrative of a novel. I would hope that they're something akin to a literary equivalent of a pub raconteur's fable, a miniature pot-boiler that can make the reader forget, momentarily, where they are and what their name is. More chance of this with a short story than any other prose form; at least a short story is read in one sitting. The novel is like a bonfire. The writer has to drag a lot of old timber around and arrange it in a way that will ensure it burns for some prescriptive length of time. A short story though is a Catherine Wheel. So long as you've nailed it properly to the post you only need light the wick. If after my first book I'd not discovered the short story form, and all of the science it taught me, I know I'd have been marooned, a guileless neophyte with a hack-job of a novel and no means of forging on.
Meic Stephens "Short stories," wrote Rhys Davies, who was no slouch when it came to writing them, "are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate. To such a writer they yield the purest enjoyment: they become a privately elegant craft allowing, within very strict confines, a wealth of idiosyncrasies." Then he added: "Another virtue of the short story is that it can be allowed to laugh." There are more funerals, coffins, wreaths, widows' weeds and cold ham in his stories than in the work of any of his peers, but always he finds a nugget of humour, delighting in his compatriots at their most elemental, and thus saving his stories from the morbid.
Davies was among the first Welsh writers to excel in the short story form, taking his place with Caradoc Evans, Glyn Jones, Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, Gwyn Thomas, Gwyn Jones, Leslie Norris and Alun Richards. To this illustrious list a number of younger writers are now being added, so that the form has continued to flourish in Wales, as the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition demonstrates every other year.
Gwyn Jones, one of my old professors at Aberystwyth, once expressed the view that the short story appealed to Welsh writers because we are "the people of the short puff", an unkind observation that is not entirely without a grain of truth.
It may be that we are good at the local but not the universal, the sprint but not the marathon, the miniature but not the epic form, the short story but not the novel. This is one of the wild generalisations about the short story form that will no doubt be examined at the Swansea conference.
Cynan Jones In Ray Bradbury's story The Fog Horn, a sea monster falls in love with a lighthouse. It's an extraordinary piece. I read it recently, but if I'd first read it as a child I'm sure I would remember it as a full length book. Such is its weight, its echo. The concept could easily support a bigger story. There are the lives of the lighthouse keepers. The history of the lighthouse. The mystery of the monster living isolated in "the Deeps". The ongoing love affair as it woos the tower with its booming call. But the story doesn't need to explore these. The reader understands. Behind every strong short story is the sense of a wider story lurking. The short story form sets a challenge: to tell a story without the safety net of background, setting, conjecture, character history. To imply rather than explain. To give the reader just enough to fire their own instinct to understand the World. When that goes right, a short story can stay with the reader as a complete event in a way only the rarest novels can. If you're in any doubt about that, read Ted Hughes, Raymond Carver, Chris Offut, Wells Tower. Find Callan Wink. Read John Steinbeck's The Long Valley. The brilliantly technical, careful stories in Tom Lee's Greenfly. Lucy Wood's fairytale Diving Belles. Feel the growing substrate of unnerve as you read through Jon McGregor's This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. Cringe at Kevin Barry's merciless demolitions of our self-delusions in Dark Lies The Island. A story is about what it leaves behind. Given that, there's no reason a short story is necessarily a smaller story.
Shena Mackay Myths, legends, fables, parables, fairy tales - from time immemorial the short story, in oral or written form, has played a huge part in human understanding and, vitally, entertainment; the psychological and visual impact of tales heard in childhood stays with us all our lives.
However, until fairly recently the modern short story has been low in the pecking-order, lost among its siblings, the bigger, louder novel, the flighty novella and poetry, the indulged baby of the family. Fortunately this is changing now and the short story is justly celebrated in its own right. I have nothing against any of the above categories of writing but I have always been fond of the short story. The fact that so many of the world's greatest writers have delivered their finest work in this genre proves the importance of the short story as an art form.
Rhys Davies describes the power of a good short story in his autobiography Print of a Hare's Foot when, observing a terrace of 50 identical houses, he writes: "Each poky dwelling contained its thimbleful of dynamite; at some time during the long boring years of obedience to decent custom it would explode, and the moment of explosion was the flower I sought."
The brief illumination of 'ordinary' lives, not necessarily with an explosive flash, sometimes with the flash of a camera, is one of the short story's aims, and our own lives, in retrospect, can seem more like a collection of short stories than one continuous narrative. Perhaps therein lies some of the appeal of the short story - the capturing of a time, a moment, an emotion, a glimpse, and within its flexible confines, the short story can be enormous.
| The Rhys Davies Short Story Weekend will run from September 13 to 15 at Swansea University. Booking closes on September 6. For full programme details and to book tickets visit www.swansea.ac.uk books - page 12-14
Writing a short story can feel wonderfully irresponsible; there's so much less heavy engineering than in writing a novelA story is about what it leaves behind. Given that, there's no reason a short story is necessarily a smaller story.
Rachel Trezise, winner of the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize in 2006 for her book of short stories, Fresh Apples…