[Tuesday Reading Room] Orange by Neil Gaiman


One of the things I love about short stories is the way they can play with form. They are, at their best, unpredictable. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman (which I found in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 anthology) ┬áis a perfect illustration.

Written in the form of answers to a police interrogation, the story never actually tells you what those questions were, leaving you to both speculate and laugh out loud at times. It unfolds gradually from the shallow answers given by a teenaged girl about her less-than-perfect homelife, to something much more complex and true. And funny and touching and hopeful and sad.

That the protagonist is answering a interrogation tells you immediately that something has gone wrong and you read in part to find out what. But after a while, as I often find with Neil Gaiman’s writing, you are reading just for the sheer joy of it. His use of language and character are masterful, engaging and accessible.

After reading this story, I immediately called over my precocious nine-year old son and read it again, over his shoulder. Upon finishing, he flipped back to the start to read it again too. It’s like that.

Highly recommended if you feel you’re getting into a rut with your short story writing and need some inspiration for a shake up. Or if you just want to read a fine, well-written short story.

Tuesday Reading Room – Brooksmith by Henry James

from Fifty Great Short Stories (Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

I don’t know much about Henry James, though I have struggled through more of his short stories than I have novels. I’ve never formally studied his writing, so don’t know what the prevailing literary criticism theories are…but I can tell you this: I dislike his characters and I dislike his outlook and I always end up, as I did at the end of this story, wanting to punch at least one of the characters in the nose.

Which is, I suppose a kind of a compliment to the writer.

Brooksmith by Henry James

As much as I say I don’t ‘like’ Henry James’s stories, I do recognise the work of a master craftsman. (I wonder if I would have liked him any better if he had been writing today [1. Probably not.])

The first thing I admired about this story was the way he pulled me in right from the first sentence. You might not think of the slow-paced Henry James novels as belonging on the same shelf as Ian Fleming or James Patterson, but there is, nonetheless, plenty of suspense to keep the reader hooked:

We are scattered now, the friends of the late Mr. Oliver Offord, but whenever we chance to meet I think we are conscious of a certain esoteric respect for each other.

Who was the late Mr. Oliver Offord and why do his friends only ‘chance to meet’ and share a ‘certain esoteric respect’ – and what does that really mean?

James continues to ratchet up the suspense in the very next sentence,

“Yes, you too have been in Arcadia,” we seem not too grumpily to allow.

Why was it “Arcadia” (and why would they ordinarily be grumpy with each other)?

The story turns out not to be about Mr Offord at all, but about his butler, Brooksmith and the perils of allowing the servant class to rise above their station.

I’m not sure which side Henry James would really have taken on the issue of class and station, but his narrator has a very fixed, extremely anti-egalitarian viewpoint that makes him supremely unsympathetic to the modern reader.

He is, however, so unrelentingly shaped by his societal norms that he is absolutely believable and ‘true’ – and loathsome, I might add.

It really struck me — after putting down this book with a sneer on my face and a punchy urge in my fist — that my writing could benefit from a bit more loathesomeness. I’m really a very nice person, trained in life to be fair and tolerant and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But being well-brought-up can create a tendency to be too nice to my characters, too forgiving.

If I want to create characters as ‘true’ and real as Brooksmith‘s unworthy narrator, I have to risk creating characters that someone 111 years from now might want to punch.


What do you do to make your characters ‘real’? Please do leave a comment!


Tuesday Reading Room – The Standard Of Living by Dorothy Parker

from Fifty Great Short Stories(Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

I’m working my way through this short story collection which was first published in 1952 and starts with a lot of what would have been quite ‘modern’ writers’ stories: Dorothy Parker, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway, V. S. Pritchett.

Only one story so far has featured a moment that seems as if it might change the main character for life. The rest are moments in time, even missed opportunities, made fascinating by the writer’s attention to the tiny details of their worlds. It strikes me that this is something you can do with a short story that you couldn’t do with a novel – at least not without annoying most of your readers. Novel readers expect something transformative to happen. Short story readers? Well, maybe they’re more forgiving because they haven’t invested quite so much time in the thing. But I still get annoyed with a lot of modern ‘literary’ stories where nothing happens and there is no sense of an ending. These stories all seem to pre-date that trend, thank goodness.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker

I’m not usually a fan of descriptive writing, but in these short stories I’m finding it is making all the difference.

The Standard of Living by Dorothy Parker is a fabulous example of how a writer can flesh out a story whose plot is basically a build up to a simple punchline and turn it into something that stays with the reader. Parker creates two ordinary, shallow young women (girls, really), who are creatures of their time and trends and who think they are oh, so very sophisticated. They walk together on Saturday afternoons and play a sort of ‘imagine if you won the lottery’ game. Close to the end, something happens that reveals how far from sophisticated they are. That is the punchline, but the way they handle it is…well, I’ll leave it to you to discover.

What make the story, is the luscious, descriptive writing. It starts with a literal feast of words:

They lunched, as was their wont, on sugar, starches, oils, and butter-fats. Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate, gritty with nuts. As alternates, they ate patties, sweating beats of inferior oil, containing bits of bland meat bogged in pale stiffening sauce…”

And it goes on. Are you starting to get a feel for who ‘they’ are yet, from this description? Who might they be? Parker gives us another big clue.

They ate no other kind of food, nor did they consider it. And their skin was like the petals of wood anemones, and their bellies were as flat and their flanks as lean as those of young Indian braves.

Ah yes, they are those despicable creatures: young women! (Can you guess I’m staring aghast at the rapidly approaching 4-0?)

Only now, half a page in, does Parker give our characters, names, station, a bit of backstory. In one paragraph she tells a lifetime. She says a lot with few words ending with:

Each girl lived at home with her family and paid half her salary to its support.

Aha! These are not high-society misses at all. These are working girls affecting a life of leisure.

(I’ll freely admit I loved that sentence in part because it captures the lives my grandmothers lived before they were married, but how many young women – or men – would do that today?)

Every description of the girls is full and sensual and tactile and fixes them in time and space.

They wore thin, bright dresses, tight over their breasts and high on their legs, and tilted slippers, fancifully strapped.

Even their state of mind is shown viscerally from:

they held their heads higher and set their feet with exquisite precision, as if they stepped over the necks of peasants.

to later, when things are not going so well. Parker never says, “they felt bad”. Instead she writes:

Their shoulders dropped and they dragged their feet; they bumped against each other, without notice of apology, and caromed away again. They were silent and their eyes were cloudy.

It’s not how I write. It’s not my style. But I loved this story and definitely want to try out a story where I try out something more phsyical and real, like this one.


Do you write in a very descriptive way? Is your style similar in most stories? Do you like to read stories in the same style as yours, or do you also enjoy stories in a radically different style? Tell me how you read.