Riptides, Or What Makes A Good Short Story?

riptidesWhen, several weeks after I had expected this book to arrive, it was still missing, I emailed a friend who knew the publisher and could track it down. The response was that it was travelling to me by boat. Boat! From Canada to Cambridge! And when it finally arrived, the package certainly looked like it had been on one hell of a journey. It was bashed up on one corner, with rips in the brown paper, the ink of the address smudged and tearful. I wondered if it had been personally rowed to shore by some hardened old seasalt, nestled under a stinking tarpaulin while wild Atlantic storms tossed the craft like a cork circling a city gutter.

The book in question was Riptides, an award-winning collection of short stories from writers based on Prince Edward Island. Its dramatic arrival gave it a sort of subversive feel, as if the writers in question were lost in isolation, left to resort to a message in a bottle.

In fact, the introduction to the book suggests that the literary history of the region has been dominated by Lucy Maud Montgomery and her perennial childrens’ favourite, Anne of Green Gables. In subsequent eras, the island has produced a lot more poets than fiction writers, perhaps the editor says, because the islanders knew each other’s business too well, and writers feared that every character they created would be hijacked by someone in real life, convinced they had been plagiarised on the page. Anyway, this collection is offered as a way to showcase the up-and-coming talent in the region. And, it seems, to place some literary distance between contemporary writing and that commercially successful but twee and safe world of Lucy Maud. The island has been ‘transformed by the juggernaut of change’ the editor writes:

Where one might detect echoes of Avonlea, that resonance is often troubled by our era’s insistent ironies, scepticism, malaise, wryly or sardonically complicated longings and antipathies, comic bite, and plaintive vulnerability. Too, the transmutations of gender roles, marital and sexual relations, and class awareness transgress by a country mile the boundaries of Montgomery’s fiction and the idyllic and genteel heritage parameters of tourism promotions.’

All of which rather made me wish my book was still on its romantic-sounding journey to me, not laying bare its garbled agenda. Because I don’t know about you but I’m no fan of agendas. They usually mean violent emotions have been transformed by overthinking into something potentially self-righteous. In the urge to run for the hills away from anything charming or ‘quaint’ or comforting or cheerful, I feared I would be on the receiving end of a great deal of dirty realism.

The good news is that the introduction was by far the worst thing in the book. The stories themselves were generally very good and there were several real highlights. In ‘The Nothing’, Melissa Carroll’s wonderfully sarcastic narrator nearly loses her winning lottery ticket to the machinations of a scheming work colleague after an unfortunate accident with a printing machine. In Malcolm Murray’s ‘The Enlightenment Tour’, an elderly gentleman alone on an equally elderly bus tours lost outposts and turns a rip-off into a meditation of sorts. In ‘Watermelon’ by Beth Janzen, a young girl watches her family’s spotlight of attention shift away from her to an ill, overweight relative in a story of exquisite subtlety. And in what was perhaps my favourite, ‘At The Red Light’ by Bonnie Stewart, a chance encounter at traffic lights leads a woman to reflect back on a turbulent period in her life.

There was, in all honesty, a bit too much dirty realism for me. I get weary fast of stories about drug-takers, cancer sufferers and would-be suicides. Those topics seem too… easy, somehow, a swift, callous route to the reader’s nerve centre. But there were also plenty of stories that tried something intriguingly original, and these were ones I deeply appreciated, too. In ‘A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly’, Jeff Bursey creates a properly intriguing voice, with a narrator who has always clung tightly to the emotional coldness that keeps him superior, but who now finds himself helplessly adrift in an unaccountable crush on the actress Juliet Stevenson. And in ‘The Widows’ Dinner’ by Philip Macdonald, a group of elderly women sit down to eat a delicious lunch together, harboring unexpectedly sinister secrets.

With twenty-three stories ranging across all sorts of subject matter and voice, there probably is something for everyone in this collection, from the psychologically astute and chilling ‘Dust’ by Shirley Limbert, in which a young woman disassociates from her abusive relationship, to ‘Where The Wind Blows’ by Samantha Desjardins, a final carefree fling with quaint and charming, in which the narrator’s grandmother and her sewing circle finally finish the hot air balloon that will transport the diminutive grandma on a long-awaited journey of discovery.

In fact, by the end, I wondered why I shy away so often from short stories. At their best they are a remarkably satisfying genre. But then, the fashion for so long has been the short story as a slice of life, a glimpse into a startling situation, that can be powerful in its style, but also leave you wondering where the rest of the novel has gone. I’m going to come right out and say it – I much prefer short stories that are obviously complete within themselves. Where something happens, and a proper ending is reached, not some sort of trailing off or hanging loose. I want a short story to be, above all else, a story, just a compact one. But that’s just me, and given the range of short stories in this collection, there must be all sorts of different tastes. What makes a short story good for you?

11 thoughts on “Riptides, Or What Makes A Good Short Story?

  1. Oh dear! I feel as if I want to answer that nothing makes a good short story for me because I always avoid them. And yet I know from those that I’ve had to read for teaching purposes that this simply isn’t the case and that there are some gems of writing out there if only I could be disciplined enough to read them. I should make a resolution to do so except the only thing likely to make me avoid the form more than I do at present is to tell me that I have resolved to read them and therefore must do so.

    • I agree with everything Alex says! I used to teach them myself, even edited a collection of them once (though they were 19th century ones) but I rarely read them by choice. However I was sent a huge volume of Elizabeth Taylor’s for review recently and loved every single one of them. Mind you if I got a book that had made a journey like this, I would have felt terrible if I hadn’t read it. Interesting point about wanting a proper ending, as I seem to remember telling students that what often made the form so interesting was lack of closure. Hmmm…

      • The short story seems to be a form beloved of the “How to write” genre of book. We were also given some (very bad) advice at school on how to write using the short story format, as obviously you can’t get people to write a whole novel for a GCSE assessment. To my mind, this points to me the short story being a more academic form as opposed to one that you would read for enjoyment or connection. (I don’t think this is necessarily desirable, though.)

        It’s the thing that often comes up in our book group – a lot of readers are looking for that from-the-heart connection. Sometimes this manifests itself in the detail of description of a particular lifestyle that doesn’t translate well to the limited word count of a short story. But I don’t think this is inherent in the form, maybe just that there is a different trend.

        I enjoyed Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. I also thought I’d like to read some interconnected short stories and imagined that would be more emotionally satisfying – and then Kate Atkinson did that very thing, and it was!

  2. That book certainly had some journey over the pond! As for short stories – they need to be finite, to tell the tale within whatever length they’ve allotted themselves. Some of the best I’ve read have been unbelievably brilliant about conveying a lot in a few words. Chekhov was of course the master, but Teffi (a recent discovery) was also quite wonderfu. I don’t read a lot of modern short works (I don’t read a lot of modern, full stop!) but I like Tove Jansson’s short works too – even her novels are like a collection of short stories!

  3. What a journey that book had.
    I agree, cancer, drug- abuse …. It seems to easy. It’s the type of story many beginners write, especially those who have no story to tell. That’s why I’m rather fond of the slice of life tales, those unfinished ones. We have the novel if we want things to be wrapped up. Maybe that’s a reason why I don’t like genre short stories that much. They mostly wrap up everything.

  4. I’ve never really got into the short story genre. The number I have read and actually enjoyed is very few and far between and I can’t imagine enjoying a whole collection. I always feel as if I’ve eaten a series of hors d’ouvres (spelling?) but never got to the main course.

  5. I like a story where there is a strong link between form and content in some way – the way doesn’t matter as it will have to vary with the content. Novels are mostly too big and varied for artistic cohesiveness of this sort, despite notable exceptions- so the story has that available. On the other hand sometimes I just like a story!

  6. I’m only just figuring out what makes a good short story for me as I’ve begun to read more of them, but I agree that at the moment I like stories where something is resolved. Even if I still feel there’s lots that could be explored I want a sense of definiteness somewhere in there.

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  8. I like a short story to feel complete too even when it is just a slice of life story. Your book arrived in such a dramatic fashion, if only it could tell you the story of its travels!

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