Monday, September 01, 2014


Books Read in June:
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Amateurs by Donald Barthelme
Fire & Rain by David Browne
Selections from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and The World's Greatest Short Stories, edited by James Daley
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

Books Read in July:
Dave Gorman v. The Rest of the World by Dave Gorman
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
Shock Wave by John Sandford
The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Books Read in August:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dave Davies
Five Came Back by Mark Harris
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga by Wagner, Mills, McMahon and Bolland

Gosh, it just struck me that I'd been a bit remiss in adding to my Books Read This Year blog, mainly because, well, I've been reading a lot of books, and trying to write a couple as well. I had hoped to get at least fifty books read this year, but I seem to have exceeded that target already, even counting the selections read from two short story anthologies as the equivalent of one book. Mind you, waiting around airports and then sitting on planes for long periods of time helped . . .

I won't tarry long, as I feel the draft of the new Parker book calling me, but I did want to offer a brief word on short stories, as I found myself reading a lot of them in June.

In May of this year I gave a workshop to aspiring writers in Sydney as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival. (I don't tend to give many workshops, mainly because I don't have much idea how I manage to write my books, and therefore I worry about trying to give advice to other people on how to write theirs.) Nevertheless, an issue that came up in the course of the session concerned short stories. One of the writers in the course wanted to write only short stories, but felt pressured — I think by others in her writing group — into using them as a dry run for novels, which she had absolutely no interest in writing. So her question was: Is the art (or craft) of writing short stories a thing in and of itself, or should short story writers inevitably feel bound to broaden their ambitions and write longer fiction?

The answer would seem pretty obvious: short stories are not simply underdeveloped novels, and it's probably unwise to view the writing of them as the literary equivalent of stabilizers on a bicycle. On the other hand, it is also true that writers of short fiction may feel a certain pressure — whether from classmates, publishers, or themselves — to explore the great plains of fiction in its longer form.

Some writers, though, are just born to work in the short form. Raymond Carver was one, although when asked why he chose to work in the form, his answer cleaved closer to practicality than to questions of art. This is from an interview with Carver in The Paris Review:


In an article you did for The New York Times Book Review you mentioned a story "too tedious to talk about here" — about why you choose to write short stories over novels. Do you want to go into that story now? 


The story that was "too tedious to talk about" has to do with a number of things that aren't very pleasant to talk about. I did finally talk about some of these things in the essay "Fires," which was published in Antaeus. In it, I said that finally, a writer is judged by what he writes, and that's the way it should be. The circumstances surrounding the writing are something else, something extraliterary. Nobody ever asked me to be a writer. But it was tough to stay alive and pay bills and put food on the table and at the same time to think of myself as a writer and to learn to write. After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novels, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project. I needed to write something I could get some kind of payoff from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories. I was beginning to see that my life was not — let's say it was not what I wanted it to be. There was always a wagonload of frustration to deal with — wanting to write and not being able to find the time or the place for it. I used to go out and sit in the car and try to write something on a pad on my knee. This was when the kids were in their adolescence. I was in my late twenties or early thirties. We were still in a state of penury, we had one bankruptcy behind us, and years of hard work with nothing to show for it except an old car, a rented house, and new creditors on our backs. It was depressing, and I felt spiritually obliterated. Alcohol became a problem. I more or less gave up, threw in the towel, and took to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit. That's part of what I was talking about when I was talking about things "too tedious to talk about."
In other words, Carver claims to have started writing short stories because he didn't have the time to write long ones, which actually seems like a pretty good reason, all things considered. I suspect that he was also artistically suited to the short form. It was where his genius lay, and he was fortunate enough to recognize that fact, whether through enforced circumstance or actual experience. 

Donald Barthelme presents a different example, as he wrote short stories and novels — or, more correctly, novellas, as his longer fiction (Snow White, The Dead Father, The King) isn't very long at all. He was a better short story writer than he was a novelist, which is in no way to damn him with faint praise: Barthelme was so good a short story writer that his novels couldn't really compete. "Fragments are the only form I trust," he once said, but his stories are not fragments at all. They are complete entities, and reading the best of them — like "The School" in the Oates anthology, or one of my favorites, "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft Between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916," simply makes one want to read more, which is why I went back and read Amateurs, a collection from 1976 that includes the quite splendidly funny and upsetting "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby." Admittedly some of the tales in Amateurs are a bit too tricksy for my liking, and I have to confess to not quite understanding what Barthelme was trying to do with them, but I've never read anyone like him in the short form, and if you could see your way toward trying Forty Stories or Sixty Stories, which function as Barthelme Best Ofs, I reckon you won't be disappointed.

It was also a pleasure to read Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow," which does what only perfect short stories can do — namely, to give us the sense of wandering in at a crucial point in an ongoing narrative, a moment of epiphany, and then leave the ends to trail in our minds like the strings of jellyfish. Wolff is another example of someone who seems to me more comfortable in the short form than the long — I've admired his novels, but they haven't moved me — although I'll take his non-fiction over both. 

Finally, I suppose short stories have been on my mind because I've gradually been working toward another Nocturnes anthology, and I've written more short stories over the last couple of years than in the eight years preceding them. For me, they're neither easier nor harder to write than novels: they're just different. It's like using another muscle, and the more you train it, the more familiar its use becomes. Short stories are unforgiving of flab; unnecessary words, paragraphs or digressions stand out more in the short form than in a novel. But they also allow the writer a certain freedom from the conventions of the novel, in particular the obligation to offer the reader some kind of conclusion — an ending or an explanation, however partial — as a reward for slogging through 300 or 400 pages. A short story permits the reader a glimpse, and nothing more, but it's a glimpse in which a whole world is briefly revealed. 

And now I have a novel to write . . .

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Books Read in April: 
Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
Rock Stars Stole My Life by Mark Ellen

Books Read in May:
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie by Jon Ronson
Field of Prey by John Sandford
Watching War Films With My Dad by Al Murray
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto
Creation Stories by Alan McGee
A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
One Leg Too Few: The Adventures of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore by William Cook
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Okay, so the first thing you’ll notice is the disparity between the amount of reading done in April and May. In part, this is because The Ginger Man took up more time than I thought it would: I’ve tried to read it twice before but never managed to get to grips with it. This time I persevered, and now I never have to read it again. We all have books that, for some reason or another, fail to connect with us.  For me, The Ginger Man seems destined to remain one of those, but at least I’m no longer nagged by my failure to finish it.

The main reason for getting so much reading done in May, though, is that I spent a lot of the month on aeroplanes, and planes are one of the few safe havens remaining to those of us who want to read undisturbed by people on cellphones, although even that little nirvana is gradually being encroached upon.

I’m also really protective of my time alone when I’m doing publicity. I spend whole days talking to people – readers, booksellers, journalists, publishers – and I enjoy doing it. (After all, there’s nothing terribly difficult about having people spend hours telling you how wonderful you are, and those who love books are generally good company.) To continue enjoying it, though, I need to balance it with a little time to myself. It’s why I never take up friends’ offers of a bed at their home instead of staying in a hotel, and it’s also why I like to slip away for a meal or a glass of wine in the evening with only a book for company. Sometimes, I may even do some writing. I’ve also come to realize that I only have one liver, and it’s hard to be the good time had by all every evening.

And in the end, writers are, by nature, solitary. Books are created in solitude, and not always when one is at one’s desk. Even on tour, I tend to be thinking about the book on which I’m working. Free time becomes precious, and reading fuels writing. Promotion is a kind of balancing act between the public and the private, between what one needs to do to create awareness of the book (and taking pleasure from the task, as it’s an important aspect of being a writer in the modern world, and should be done with good grace) and what one needs in order to keep creating new work, which is one’s own space. When I began writing, that space was always the little office I kept at home. Now, because of the demands of travel, I’ve learned to bring that space with me. 

Anyway, I seem to have ploughed through quite a number of books in May, although I confess to only reading the Discworld stories in the Pratchett book, and I skipped the extended interviews in the biography of Cook and Moore. (And I felt guilty for doing so, as if I was somehow cheating. It was like not eating my greens.)

One thing did strike me recently about my reading, although I must credit friend and minion Clair for bringing it to my attention: so far this year, the books that I’ve read have been overwhelmingly male. This caused, to borrow a phrase from the late Douglas Adams, a long dark tea-time of the soul, especially since I was reading Al Murray’s Watching War Films With My Dad at the time, a book that couldn’t be more male if it had a penis dangling from the front of it. I mean, I’m not the kind of person who goes into a bookstore and announces that “I need a book, any book – just as long as it’s not written by a woman, because I don’t like those kinds of books, whatever kind they may be.” I didn’t consciously set out not to read books by women, but was I unconsciously doing so? Had I simply slipped into a kind of bad habit or was the relative absence of female authors on my list underpinned by a set of assumptions that I couldn’t even admit to myself?

The solution, I determined, was just to adapt my reading behavior, because I didn’t want to be “that reader.” Hence the Audrey Magee book, and the Wharton, and I’ve just finished Sarah Lotz’s The Three, although that’s something for the June list. Neither The Undertaking nor Ethan Frome was exactly cheery, although, to be fair, the former concerns a marriage of convenience during World War II, and takes in the Holocaust and the horrors of the Russian front, so an absence of hilarity is largely to be expected. The latter, meanwhile, draws conspicuous attention at an early stage to the potential danger posed by an elm tree near a sledding run, leading one to suspect that an elm tree/sled incident is on at cards at some stage. Wharton does not disappoint on this front, although she manages to add a twist to the whole business that will cause the casual reader to look askance at elm trees forever after – and, indeed, to cast a cold eye on life in general. 

So a good month of reading, then: allowing for stories and interviews skipped, I’m up to 30 books read so far this year, and I’ve also taken a step on the way to being a better person.  I’m positively glowing with self-satisfaction…