A good short story

Thursday, May 29, 2014
AS Patric interviewed by Patricia Tobin

Photo of AS Patric
AS Patric

‘Las Vegas for Vegans’ writer AS Patric spoke to WV’s communications intern Patricia Tobin about the short story form.

Why short stories? What makes a good short story?

Literature is a form of travel, if only from you, to me, and back again. It’s a kind of travel that can take a reader anywhere in the world and to any point in history. Novels offer a type of travelling that rarely allows the reader to leave the tour bus. Short stories get you off the beaten path of tired tourist routes. That’s not purely because of brevity though of course concision defines the genre. Intensity, density and a greater potential for virtuosity—these are the reasons I love short stories. The tour bus of the novel will take you on a long, winding journey, often with someone on the microphone narrating the whole way. A good story will seize your attention and run with it for an hour or two, leaving you somewhere unexpected while your pulse is still racing.

Tolstoy and Joyce are some examples of authors who have written bulky novels, but their short stories are a lot more digestible and reader-friendly. Do you think that the short story form is perhaps the novel’s gentler, kinder cousin?

Joyce’s stories are certainly more digestible and reader-friendly, though I wouldn’t say that’s true for Tolstoy. Dubliners was Joyce’s first book of prose and the only example of his short fiction. It’s early work, so he couldn’t rely on a great reputation to find publication and readership. Joyce’s ambition drove him ever more obsessively and his last book, Finnegans Wake, is a novel famous for being the opposite of digestible and reader-friendly. Tolstoy wrote short fiction over his entire career so there’s no reason for them to be gentler or kinder. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ is the most relentless and brutal exploration of mortality ever written. Your own life flashes before your eyes after you’ve read the fifty pages of this story.

To answer the question more generally, I think short stories are less digestible and less reader-friendly despite being short. The reason they are not as popular as novels is because they require much more of the reader’s attention even if less of his/her time. Short stories reward a forensic focus on detail and call for a depth of engagement too demanding for readers who desire easy entertainment. Short stories can be defined by brevity, as I mentioned, but concision isn’t the only significant feature. Novel writing is the dominant commercial form of fiction and short story writing thrives in the more unpredictable and volatile zones of literary art.

Your latest collection of short stories, Las Vegas for Vegans, features “fractured relationships” and evokes “the slow-dawning recognition of betrayal”. What makes the short story the best medium to highlight the fragility of human relationships?

The relationships we have with lovers and friends, parents and children, with neighbours and work colleagues, with our dentist or bus driver or any number of people we move through the world with—all our relationships from birth to death are instrumental in not only how we identify ourselves but in every aspect of our being. Any type of creative expression can find modes of exploring human connection, yet uniquely a collection will render with starker contrast different sets of relationships as a reader moves from one piece to the next. Las Vegas for Vegans is comprised of 34 stories and the sequence of the stories was crucial in navigating through a progressive spectrum of relationships. There are relationships that feed or starve us. There’s the way they inform our experience of life—sometimes distort or disorder. The way relationships diminish or grow can be beyond our control or understanding and yet they remain as vital as they are fundamental. We disintegrate without human relationships so that fragility is at the core of life.

There is no such thing as the perfect novel, but what about the perfect short story? Do you think that the perfect short story has already been written?

I wouldn’t call any story or novel perfect. Perfection seems a mathematical concept to me. 1+1=2 is perfect. Perfection in technology might be found in the latest television screen when what we see looks absolutely lifelike. A sculpture might be perfect in the same way if the stone has been carved with such craftsmanship that it resembles living flesh. If we look at one of the most stunning examples of ancient Greek art, Winged Victory of Samothrace, we might realise that it’s precisely the missing head and arms that moves us so much when we stand before what would otherwise be little more than a garden ornament. Technical perfection is still 1+1=2, yet in literature the equation is more likely to resemble 1+?=∞. How lifelike the text translates for a reader can be as crucial as it is trivial. Perfection suggests we’re looking for an ideal, yet perhaps what we’re really hoping for is a particular kind of mystery—one that hides the truth so that we can see it more clearly in revelation. A story that did that for me recently was a New Yorker piece I read by T.C. Boyle called ‘Chicxulub.’ A title which is a terribly long way from perfect. And I must say it’s impossible for me not to think of Chekhov’s short story, ‘Lady with a Little Dog,’ when I consider the question of literary perfection.

You have previously said that the short story form is not valued in Australia. With the emerging crop of Australian short story writers (e.g. Nam Le, Maxine Beneba Clarke), do you think that perhaps now there is a developing space for short stories in Australia?

When international publishers put their full weight behind a local book, anything is possible. The prevailing pessimism will go on, I suspect. Aussie publishers, agents and bookstores will go on thinking of these examples of success as exceptions that prove the rule. And yet collections like The Boat and Foreign Soil do indeed show in emphatic fashion how very many readers there are eager to embrace great short story writing.

About AS Patric

AS Patric is the award winning author of Las Vegas for Vegans, a story collection shortlisted in the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards for the Steele Rudd Award. He is also the author of The Rattler & Other Stories and the winner of the 2011 Ned Kelly Award and the 2011 Booranga Prize. His stories have featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Overland, Southerly, Island, Quadrant, in over 20 other literary journals, and in Best Australian Stories 2010 and 2012.

Update: Alec will be running a one-day Summer School workshop on Fictive Expressions at Writers Victoria in January 2017.

About Patricia Tobin

Patricia Tobin is a Writers Victoria communications intern. She tweets at @havesomepatty.