Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Spanning Mankind's Time On earth

Fellow Writers 2nd Tuesday Blog Hop.

It is easy to imagine early man sitting together in a group, swapping stories.  Every day someone would relate a tale or a happening.  The favourite story tellers around the fire would be the natural yarn spinners, the ones who could prune, titivate and just slightly exaggerate for effect.  The ones with exquisite timing for scare/laughter.   We would be comfortable with the image of these early humans because story telling is inbuilt in our culture.  It is how we make sense of our world, how we entertain and teach our children, it is also a tool for manipulation.  We understand the short story.

The first stories would have been in the oral tradition and would most likely have been to educate and lead the others, entertain your audience and half the battles are won.  When we relate stories of our own childhood to children we are using the same format: to illustrate how some things in life are unchanging; how emotions they have, we had; we use it to illustrate that some things can be changed.  We use it in a fun way and they learn. 

The short story has been with us for so long, the earliest written short story discovered was penned in ancient Egypt c1300 BC, others have been found, written in 100-200 AD during the Roman period and 'Aesop’s Fables' of course were written in the 6th century.  The text I had to learn for my A levels, Chaucer’s 'The Franklin’s Tale', was penned in the 14th century.  Coming from the oral tradition I believe we would have to include Homer’s 'Iliad'.  Maybe early stories would have similar metres and rhythm to them to enable the learning of them to be easier.

 It is the short story which is the natural form, not the novel.

Any of you who have followed my blogs will know that I delight in the connections which bind me through generations and centuries.  When I began reading nearly halfway through the 20th century I began with bookshelves overflowing with books, all around the house.  My parents, confirmed bookworms, born a little way into the 20th century contributed their books.  When I was seven, grandparents came to live in our house bringing books by the hundreds, now they had been born at the end of the 19th century.  So my grandparents had grown up reading the books of their parents born in the middle of the 19th century. 

They grew up reading, as contempory publications, what we would now call classics.  Madame Bovary had only been written twenty years before they were born. (Twenty years then was not as fast as twenty years now!)  It was a favourite of theirs which they passed to my parents, not realising that it was becoming a classic, an historical period piece.  It was thus presented to me, as an old friend, far too old and barely understood, but a family friend for all that. 

Other contemporaries of my grandparents included George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield and R L Stevenson.  I mention this because obviously at such a young age I wasn’t devouring all the novels they wrote, however they all wrote short stories which I did read.  All these ‘greats’ were well read ‘friends’ of my parents or their parents.  I can look back from the early 21st century at an unbroken line of literature to the mid 19th century.  Magic!

There are many forms to short story writing.  I may have started with the above-mentioned, and with children’s books such as 'Aesop' and very un-Disney-like Victorian copies of 'Grimm’s Fairy Tales', but then my parents’ contemporaries were the like of Hemmingway, Lawrence, Joyce and Dylan Thomas.  My father developed a great liking of Sci Fi and horror, collecting such as Clarke and Poe. Along the way I devoured any book that came my way, however hard, odd or traditional they may have been, from whatever land they originated. 

There are endless arguments over what is a short story, with the lines drawn between traditional and modern.  There is no true traditional though.  Short stories throughout the ages have been constantly changing and re-arranging themselves.  Short stories are found in the parables, the fables, and the morality tales.  The language may be precise and linear or lyrical such as found in ancient mythological tales.  The most comfortable for most of us is the linear form where each word is precise, concise and relating to the story; a character, a plot, a beginning, middle and an end, and where right triumphs.  We are taught to write them thus.

Chekov came along and, it is claimed, he transformed the form of the 19th century by presenting life in all its grim reality.  No plots, no happy endings.  It must have been a shock.  Well, having no plot was new but grim reality?  No happy endings?  People have been relating those since people could relate.  The fairy tales of our childhood began life as folk tales and these were, in their originals, as grim a reality as you would desire!
No plot?  No trimmed, precise language?  Joyce and Thomas scooped this up running. Read their offerings to find the love of language just for its sound, its look, its extravagance.  Words overflowing with exuberance in plenty, lyrical in a way that was being used to good effect in ancient Celtic texts.  The metaphorical language of these can be found in Plato’s Republic with his ‘Parable of the Cave’.

So-called modern stories which have hidden narratives and hidden sub-texts (these drove me mad when a teenager but which now I find myself writing!) explode on the scene with Hemmingway, Nabokov and Calvino but there is still tremendous debate over the ‘hidden message’ in some of the more obscure stories in the Bible.

In its recent heyday at the beginning of the 20th century authors could amass huge fortunes writing short stories, and almost every author of any note joined in the readers’ frenzy.  Some splendid short stories were created in those few years (think O Henry), then the genre started to fall into the doldrums (except maybe for science fiction).

The received advice is that short story collections do not sell.  Oh but they do.  The internet has rescued them.  Technology has resurrected them.  Our supposed short attention span has led to an explosion of short tales of every kind.  Some abysmally bad probably to the purist.  The great ones will float to the surface as the greats of every time have always done.  

All of us who pen a short/flash/nano/drabble etc do so on the back of a history that spans mankinds time here on earth.  You all ‘rock’!!


  1. Alberta, what a great history lesson of the short story. I feel wonderful after reading your post because my book is a collection of short stories, and I did realize the stigma against it.
    Many people prefer reading a full-length novel because they feel it's the only format to really get to know the characters, follow the plot line, and be engaged.
    I already knew that wasn't the case, but your post really hammers it home.

    Thanks for sharing,

  2. Great piece, Alberta--really made me think.

    I tend to write novels only because the characters that I interact with insist on it--however the very first book I wrote was a collection of short stories based on two particular people--so I know the draw of it.

    One of my dearest friends is a professional storyteller--I'll pass this post along to him--I know he'll love it!

  3. Next time I need to write a paper on The Canterbury Tales I'm coming back to you.
    Personally, with my relative inexperience, I find it difficult to write a novel so I'm focusing on short stories now, but I do think a short story takes some effort because everything needs to be told in such a short span.

  4. Wonderful blog! I love the history and yes short story collections are again making a come back on the market. I love to use shorts to play with my novel characters, getting them worked out or learning their personalities before going into the "big book" :)

  5. A wonderful post. I love that idea of an unbroken line of literature stretching back to the past, all connected with telling stories round the fire - people ought to do more of that nowadays :-)