Byatt’s Oxford Anthology of English Short Stories is in my hands not just because I am enjoying it but because it is going to serve as the test text for an experiment run by Alex of Thinking in Fragments in which, by means of the technique of tagmemics, she is going to prove that “most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort” because the “dénouement and/or conclusion is missing,” with readers “left to construct the elements that are missing” and, by extension, this is why people don’t “get” short stories.
By contrast, my experience has been that almost all short stories of any real quality, the only ones I am likely to read, are actually stories – most stories are light entertainment published in popular magazines, not avant garde fragments – and that readers do not like them for reasons that will sound uncharitable if I write them out. Most novels, even many of the best, are more forgiving of a reader’s inattention, I will just say that. I mostly read novels myself.
So I have been, like a diligent student, reading ahead. Odds are I won’t understand a word of the tagmemicism, so the argument will be left unresolved. If Alex does not insist on a chronological order, I suggest starting with “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, who was a rarity, a genuine English Surrealist. She supplies the painting on the book’s cover as well as three pages of silliness about a saint who lives on a traffic island which, however random its contents, deliberately mimics the structure of an ordinary story.
So here I am on the island with all size of mechanical artifacts whizzing by in every conceivable direction, even overhead.
Here I sit. (371)
Or so it seems to me, using the technique of reading.
Another good test case is the Saki story “The Toys of Peace,” in part because its contents are so trivial and predictable. An uncle and mother decide that the children should relinquish their tin soldiers for peaceful toys. Presented with said toys, the little boys immediately march them off to war. The appeal of this story lies entirely in its details.
In an awful silence he disinterred a little lead figure of a man in black clothes.
‘That,’ he said, ‘is a distinguished civilian, John Stuart Mill. He was an authority on political economy.’
‘Why?’ asked Bertie.
‘Well, he wanted to be; he thought it was a useful thing to be.’
Bertie gave an expressive grunt, which conveyed his opinion that there was no accounting for tastes. (156)
I included the last line because I feel it to be, as a joke, cheap and inferior. The big laugh is in the word “Why.”
‘These little round things are loaves baked in a sanitary bakehouse. That lead figure is a sanitary inspector, this one a district councillor, and this one is an official of the Local Government Board.’
‘What does he do?’ asked Eric wearily.
‘He sees to things connected with his Department,’ said Harvey. (157)
Sensitive readers will experience a joyous, healthful catharsis when, at the end of the story, Mill and the others have been doused with red ink. “’He bleeds dreadfully,’ said Bertie, splashing red ink liberally on the façade of the Association building” (159).
I could use a technique which demonstrates which jokes are funny. Regardless, I eagerly await the tagmemicist experiment, even though I am already know the results.