Monday, 19 September 2011

the metaphorical brick wall

Yesterday, I tweeted about why short stories are important - again.

No doubt this short story cuts campaign (or my part in it) has already bored the socks off many people - even fellow writers, especially those who've never written a short story in their lives. I think for those who don't write them, or read them, or hear them, it's difficult to make a connection with the form.

Hmm.. how can I structure my ideas about this in a way that makes others see it as clearly as I would like?  Metaphor.

The first metaphor that comes to mind is that of Literature as a house. If BBC Radio 4 in their wisdom decide that the short story doesn't warrant as much time on the air as other forms - as serialised novels, as plays, as comedy series - then one could say BBCR4 is like the proprietor of a new house, taking pride in the glories of the decoration and smart furnishings, without having asked how the boiler works.

Or perhaps, in the metaphorical House of Literary Output, if the grand rooms are novels, if the windows are poetry...short stories are the foundations. And if the foundations of your house aren't sound, fancy wallpaper, plump sofas and pretty curtains won't make it somewhere you can live happily ever after.

To me (and I'm not a theorist or an academic) Story means 'essence'. For writers, 'story' is about identifying the important elements, presenting them in the right order, and writing them imaginatively enough to reach the reader or listener. Every individual author's 'voice' is built on those basic but vital abilities. 

To paraphrase Jean Cocteau - without 'story', the great body of fiction is just a dictionary out of order.

Metaphors are not just useful, they're essential. A friend told me last week about a book called Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in which Lakoff, a linguist, and Johnson, a philosopher, make the case that without metaphor we would not have a language to discuss ideas; they contend that language is structured like this:

 "The speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a bearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word/containers." 

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as one of the strengths of good short fiction - for the writer, it's a particularly elegant delivery system for ideas, feelings, images, truths, which are unpacked and reassembled by the receiver/listener.

Radio is a well-designed utility vehicle. The reader & producer are there to ensure the contents are sent at the right speed, over the best roads, that the ideas reach you on time and - one hopes - with nothing broken.

The sturdy lorries that carry novels, the bicycles and kites that carry poems, are also wonderful 'conduits' for ideas, sent in the way that their writer has chosen to meet the needs of their particular customer, standing on their doorstep, waiting, with their scissors and an allen key, ready to unwrap, assemble and appreciate the contents.

There is more to say about why the short story is important, why it needs to be appreciated by the BBC as essential to the upkeep of the nation's literary mansion (I know it's on ITV, not BBC, but I'm picturing Downton Abbey there, aren't you?); no doubt I'll keep saying it, again and again, even though it sometimes feels like banging my real head against a metaphorical brick wall.

Meanwhile, I must go - there's a slightly worrying ticking sound coming from my boiler...

(NB - no metaphors were harmed in the assembly of this blog post, though some have been mildly bent out of shape. Ed.)

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