Friday, September 26, 2014

He sees to things connected with his Department - short stories are stories

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.


  1. Lurking within the phrases and clauses of your distinctions between short stories and novels is this: good novels -- compared to good short stories -- invite frequent, repeated readings because of the almost infinite perspectives and considerations they contain (e.g., Bleak House and Middlemarch); short stories, however, in frequent, repeated readings yield only insights into technique (e.g., stories by Chekhov). Perhaps that is being too simple-minded. Even as I write what I have just written I think it might be insufficient. You tell me.

  2. You gotta be kidding! Chekhov! Extend your idea to poetry & see what happens.

    1. Ya got me! (Kidding . . . ah, the annoying habit of provocation . . . )

    2. Postscript: So that you do not misunderstand my provocative baiting of the hook, and so that you understand that I can sometimes be serious about reading and thinking about literature, I invite you to visit every now and then my new project at Beyond Eastrod: my favorite author, Flannery O'Connor, will be in the spotlight for a long, long time. I will very much value your input along the way.

    3. I saw the announcement post. It's a great project.

  3. Ha ha, I've read Saki's complete stories and knew that one; I thought it was one of his best.

    Carrington was, to me, one of the few surrealists who actually knew how to write. You should check her comical novel The Hearing Trumpet, complete with her silly illustrations. Dorothea Tanning wasn't too bad either.

  4. It is a very funny story. Obvious, but that only heightens the humor.

    The Hearing Trumpet is on my Someday List. I actually like a lot of Surrealist writers - or, really, former Surrealists. Michel Leiris, for example, or Alejo Carpentier. Surrealism was a kind of MFA program for them.

  5. Lazy critics are frustrated by having to unwind secrets and traps inside short stories, and thus write things like the following about, for example, one of Kipling's short stories depicting a lowly vessel channeling a great author, The Janeites:

    "It is this ubiquitous presence of the Ring [of secrets], this unwearied knowingness, that renders Kipling's work in the long run suffocating and unendurable." Or even:

    "The story would have the same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’ and the password had been ‘Hiram’s Hospital’ instead of ‘Tilneys [sic] and trap-doors’."

    Let's see, The Janeites has for protagonist a badly wounded hairdresser, whose whole battalion has been obliterated by artillery and who, by uttering a couple of words from Austen to a senior nurse, an Austen devotee, moves her to pity and is thus smuggled on to a hospital train and so has his life saved. Early on the story we have this exchange: "He communicated me the Password of the First Degree, which was Tilniz an’ trap-doors. “ I know what a trap-door is,” I says to him, “ but what in hell’s Tilniz? “ "

    From Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey:
    [On the one hand, Catherine] could not think the Tilneys had acted quite well by her. On the other hand, the delight of exploring an edifice like Udolpho was such a counterpoise of good as might console her for almost anything. She meditated, by turns, on broken promises and broken arches, phaetons and false hangings, Tilneys and trap-doors.

    From Udolpho:
    I had begun to think some wonderful adventure had befallen you, and that the giant of this enchanted castle, or the ghost, which, no doubt, haunts it, had conveyed you through a trap-door into some subterranean vault, whence you was never to return.

    From Kipling's The Janeites:
    Then a pretty tight barrage was slapped down for ten minutes. When I came to, I was lying outside the cutting, which was pretty well filled up. The Reverend Collins was all right; but Lady Catherine and the General were past praying for. I lay there, taking it in, till I felt cold and I looked at meself. Otherwise, I hadn’t much on except me boots. So I got up and walked about to keep warm. Then I saw something like a mushroom in the moonlight. It was the nice old gentleman’s bald head. I patted it. Him and his laddies had copped it right enough. They hadn’t even begun to dig in—poor little perishers! I dressed myself off them there. Then I went back to the cutting and someone says to me: “Dig, you ox, dig! Gander’s under.” So I helped shift things till I threw up blood and bile mixed. Then I dropped, and they brought Gander out—dead—and laid him next me. Hammick had gone too—fairly torn in half, they told me. Mosse we never found. He’d been standing by Lady Catherine, by the look of things.’
    ‘And what came to Macklin?’ said Anthony.
    ‘Dunno. . . . He was with Hammick. I expect I must have been blown clear off of all by the first bomb; for I was the only Janeite left.’

  6. Re the short story project:

    (I think this comment follows the canonical short story structure.)

  7. That is a good story. I found it satisfying. It is worthy of Lydia Davis. Maybe the people who feel short stories lack closure have been reading nothing but Lydia Davis. They so rarely say what they have been reading. Because then a grump like me could argue the point - "'Lady with a Lapdog' has no conclusion! What?" Best to keep it vague.

    I am almost surprised that there has not been a big revival of "The Janeites," given the centennial of the war and the huge number of Janeites. Not really surprised, though.

    "same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’ " - ouch, ouch, no.

  8. '"same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’ " - ouch, ouch, no.'
    Of course not. The critic you quote ignored the kind of authors Austen and Trollope are. ‘The Trollopians’ would probably reflect the famous description of Trollope: the favourite novelist of people who don't like novels.
    What are/would 'the Kiplingites' be like, I wonder?

  9. The Kiplingites, that's a good question, especially now.

    1. ...and, of course (that favourite phrase of critics), no-one would be an Anthonine or Rudyardian, just as an Austenite is a very different kind of person to a Janeite.

  10. I would be sunk without "of course."

    One of my few self-imposed stylebook rules is that men and women are treated alike at Wuthering Expectations. Austen is Austen, not Jane. You're right - I'm something of an Austenite myself, but no kind of Janeite.

  11. I don't think Janeites are sexist: the title reflects the kind of writer she is and the people in that particular story who admire and adore her work in a particular situation. In fact, as Edwardians, they would only refer to Austen as Jane in such a stressful situation. Even so, even under that pressure there are not many writers who would inspire such intimacy, even as an illusion. George Eliot is probably even more admired than Austen, but no-one would imagine a Georgian cult about her.

  12. Roger, I was sidling over to a side issue, not related to Kipling's story except that the one Janeite cult reminded me of another, and of a common and unfortunate usage on book blogs and even in print, the practice of critics, not soldiers under fire. Kipling's coinage is perfect, typically brilliant.