Make the ordinary, extraordinary: it’s National Short Story Week
Yesterday marked the start of the UK’s National Short Story Week. Although many have tried to define the short story in terms of word count, the traditional definition of ‘readable in one sitting’ suffices for most. The week’s website features this year’s short story anthology by young writers as well as many other short stories for all. You can also find tips to writing your own one-sitting stories.
Why dedicate an entire week to the short story? My guess is that the short story is the all-too-often-forgotten and underestimated member of the literature genre family. Short-stories are often covered in the first semester of your first year of secondary school as an easing-in towards longer novels many students might not even finish reading. I myself have dismissed the potential impact of a good short because the end simply comes ‘too quickly’, until I came across ‘The End of the Whole Mess’ by Steven King when I was thirteen.
As with novels, there are good and bad short stories. Because so many of us only explore the genre once or twice, we too often blame the genre when we encounter a bad story. Only when we find a short story that strikes us just as that dramatic four-hundred page novel does, do we realise the power of a single sitting.
Thankfully, things are getting better for the short story. Alice Munro, the Canadian short-story writer, made international headlines when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. The Nobel committee explained that she had proved to be the ‘master of the contemporary short story’. Her work is characterised by psychological realism and a gift for describing the everyday struggle to live a decent life.
This interest and ability to describe the everyday is precisely what some nay-sayers hold against many short stories. Of course, not all short stories describe everyday life, but many do tend to with little context. Critics see this as mundane literature and this conflict isn’t confined to the English-language repertoire.
Christian Lorentzen, a critic of Munro, says that her prose has ‘uncommon smoothness’ without ‘snap’ to it and finds her work all too predictable. Some of modern Arabic literatures’ greatest pioneers such as Mahmoud Darwish have faced similar criticism for their portrayal of the ‘ordinary’ in short stories and poems. Describing a morning stroll in modern Beirut or Cairo is not literary prowess, according to these critics, it is a child’s work.
Nevertheless, Darwish’s poems are seen as a moving testimony of his fellow Palestinians’ nostalgia for a lost home. His poem’To my Mother’, in particular, encapsulates memories of childhood that are perhaps ordinary if not seen in the context of exile, but rich when seen in that light.
As for Munro, her long career has spanned a time of great change locally and globally. Her scenes in rural Ontario often ignore the taboo of aging and cancer. Today, this resonates less with younger audiences who can’t see the breakthrough now that many of these taboos are being shattered.
This brings me to my conclusion. Given a context, a set of stifling social norms perhaps, a social revolution, inequality, etc, the ordinary rendered honestly can be an extraordinary thing.
Often, the greatest part of that dreaded writer’s block is the fear of inadequacy. If you believe you live in a dynamic time when things are changing or need to change, and you keep that in mind when writing, your story can’t be mundane, at least not to everyone.
If you’re inspired by the stories you’ve read on the National History Week’s website, why don’t you mark this week yourself by writing and checking for contests to which you can submit an entry? Another useful web link to check for a list of contests is the Book Trust prizes webpage.