On Beige Short Stories

This article over on the Guardian by Mark Haddon is bloody wonderful. It helped me put my finger on something that has been irking me about some short stories I’ve been reading lately. Close reading stories has been an interesting exercise for me (and I’ve written some of my thoughts here, here and here). I found that certain stories which I enjoyed first time around are flimsy and dull when I re-read them. I’ve even avoided writing about some of the stories I intended to blog about because I just couldn’t be bothered to think enough about them after I’d finished reading, well-written enough though they were.

I think that people on writing courses are taught to see short stories in a particular way. I’ve noticed that I get higher marks if I play it safe in my stories, so perhaps others have found the same thing. I think this is a shame because, in our busy-worshiping lives, we need to grab attention if we want actual readers to notice our stories. This line of Haddon’s particularly stood out to me: ‘It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.’ I would rather watch Netflix than read another ho-hum short story, and for a long time I thought this was a failing of mine. Perhaps I wasn’t actually cut out to be a prose writer! Over the last two years I have become rather fond of the short story form, but only when it is done well. The strongest short story collection I have read recently is Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. She isn’t trying to impress, because she’s Margaret Atwood. You get the sense in Stone Mattress that she’s just trying to amuse herself and, because of this, the stories are fun to read.

We are taught Chekhov and Carver. When we are taught that only one type of story is the sort of story we should be writing, it makes for some dull, beige stories. Particularly if the writer is just doing a bad impression of a writer they think they should emulate. Perhaps we are not even consciously taught this, perhaps this is just what people think short stories are.

I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and am looking forward to reading Mark Haddon’s new short story collection.