Does the short story have roots in oral storytelling? Should literature be a communal event? And could your short stories benefit from losing their more “readerly” bits? These were the questions thrown around at a night of wine, laughter and short fiction.
I recently dropped into a session at the brilliant Word Factory salon in London, where every month leading short story writers come to read from their collections and engage in debate on the short story form.
The last session saw short story writers William Palmer, Sheila Llewellyn and Clive Sinclair reading their own work, and Times Literary Supplement editor Sir Peter Stothard even gave a reading of Horace’s Fifth Epode, an ancient poem that bears some of the hallmarks of a short story. The discussion ranged from which other short story writers inspired our panellists (“the usual mob”, according to William Palmer) to what short story advice they would give to writers just setting out, and whether the limitations of the form sometimes frustrated them.
One of the main themes of the evening was whether short stories were part of an oral tradition of storytelling, or whether they should exist primarily to be read on the page.
This is a pretty interesting discussion to have at an event that revolves around writers reading from their own works. Another attendee mentioned afterwards that the atmosphere of the night had taken her back to when she was a child and her parents had read to her – the soothing sense of being told a story. I felt the same, actually – that having these stories read to me had been part of a communal experience that has seeped out of literature since the invention of the printing press.
When did experiencing a story become a solitary activity? Could that be one factor in the waning commercial life of the short story – that one of its key ingredients (the camp fire, the audience, the storyteller?) has gone missing?
One questioner brought up the example of a novelist who read her work out loud in order to ensure that it couldn’t be spoken. She wanted to develop a style that could only exist on the page. Clive Sinclair shook his head as he answered this one.
“I don’t consider myself part of an oral tradition. I’m very much embedded in text,” he said. “But I still read my work back, in the hopes that it does sound spontaneous. I do enjoy using the confessional mode, the first person.”
Sheila Llewellyn agreed. Her background as a scriptwriter, she said, made her particularly attuned to the cadences of speech.
“I do read my work back,” she said. “I don’t write consciously as part of an oral tradition, but I hear the dialogue, as it were – I hear it while I’m writing, and I read my work out loud to make sure it sounds right.”
Interestingly, she had edited her Iranian Revolution story, the Papak Hat, for the reading that night.
“When I found I had to cut about ten minutes from the story, it was the more ‘readerly’ bits of the story that I had to cut out. And it’s quite disturbing for me that the story doesn’t seem to be any worse off without them! So I’m going to have to think about that,” she said, to laughter around the room.
William Palmer added a point about the mode of address in the story or novel. “If you are writing in the first person, people expect a human being to be speaking fairly normally,” he said. And he certainly considered the short story part of an oral tradition.
So is the short story part of an oral tradition? Should they be written for the page or for an audience? This is one of those questions that never really gets answered, but fosters some truly fascinating debate. A lot of writers, even the most “readerly” ones, to borrow Llewellyn’s phrase, advise reading your work out loud to spot gaps in the rhythm and awkward turns of phrase. This is probably one of the pieces of writing advice I’ve heard most often from workshops. Perhaps even in this day of e-readers and online fiction, telling stories has never really left the campfire.
What do you think? Leave me your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you want to attend a Word Factory event, check out the events page on their website.