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    Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

    I picked up an ancient second hand copy of Bill Naughton's slim volume of short stories 'Late Night on Watling Street', and am loving their understated style and deceptive simplicity. There's a special art to telling an economically expressed story from the point of view of a slightly detached narrator. The German writer Elke Heidenreich and the Austrian novelist Thomas Glavinic have this down perfectly too, but I can't think of many modern writers in the English language who still carry this off well apart from Deborah Eisenberg. I'd love to be corrected on that, though.

    #2
    Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

    Ah, there's nothing gets OTF going like a heated debate on the art of the modern short story. Century thread by tea-time?

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      #3
      Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

      It's almost as though you have an interest in pushing short stories for some reason...

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        #4
        Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

        Well, if it helps I've been listening to the audible version of George R R Martin's "Dreamsongs". I'm not sure he qualifies as having an understated style or deceptive simplicity (although for the latter, I'd have to say that "With Morning Comes Mistfall" and "The Way of Cross and Dragon" must come close).

        I would say that "Sandkings" really stands up as one truly great story, arguably as good a 'genre' novella as there has ever been. I read it ages ago, then had it stuck in my brain recently, so dug out this collection to revisit it. The 2nd listen/read really revealed the air of inevitability and sheer drive in the narrative that I missed the first time. Highly recommended (but if you don't like it, tough).

        More than anything though, hearing Martin describe his career and the phases of his writing has been pretty incredible. For a 'genre' writer so much of his work easily cross-pollinates across those lines, that I'd have to agree with his sentiment about the trappings of genre 'furniture' being out-dated. (And the success of many recent 'mainstream' novels - Lethem's or Chabon's, for instance, seems to confirm this.) And them hearing him describe how he wrote, how he got published, and how he developed depending on what he was doing is really fun stuff for me.

        It's an intentionally uneven collection, with some of the early writings being interesting but notably terrible. (The comic book origins of many is likely the cause of this.)

        Highlights:
        -"Sandkings" as mentioned above
        -The decidedly creepy "Pear-shaped Man"
        -"And Seven Times Never Kill Man", which takes a couple of trope themes and finishes with an unexpected flourish
        -"The Stone City" some of the best, most evocative writing in the collection, in my opinion. I was disappointed when it ended, but upon reflection it is more perfect for the abruptness.

        I didn't love the two 'superhero' stories, but they got my attention enough to want to read others in the Wild Cards collections.

        And really, those who complain about the bleakness of A Song of Ice and Fire would do best to stay away from "Meathouse Man". It's repulsive. (And possibly great. I'm not sure.)

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          #5
          Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

          Gangster Octopus wrote: It's almost as though you have an interest in pushing short stories for some reason...
          Oh do fuck off, that horse has long since bolted, fled, and died of old age in a quiet field.

          Thanks for that, matt - I've only heard of Martins, but never read anything by him, so will definitely seek him out.

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            #6
            Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

            Well, on the subject of short stories, if this doesn't get a few replies then nothing will. (I thought of posting it in World, but Books needs all the help it can get.)

            The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher -- 6th August 1983 by Hilary Mantel

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              #7
              Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

              Like Thatcher's death, 30 years too late, but after the over-stylised opening, I thought it was very good, especially the dialogue between the assassin and the narrator.

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                #8
                Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                Two short stories on The Private Life of Genghis Khan by Douglas Adams. These are in The Salmon of Doubt and they were still in draft form I think.

                But, that said, they are good examples to show how a short story can stem from just one interesting thought/angle/event. Tease it out a little bit, "What if ... ?", "What would happen ... ?", and then try to capture that.

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                  #9
                  Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                  Still waving a flag for the short story genre - published this year, 'Flings' by Justin Taylor. There's one moment when a character describes his desire for a (foreign) colleague and declares he wants to "fuck her until she prays in her mother tongue". It's not often enough you have to put a book down for five minutes to laugh (though I should stress that the build-up and the context did help).

                  I read them in less than two days.

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                    #10
                    Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                    And on I go, reading trends and brick walls be damned - two more absolutely magnificent short story collections:

                    This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.
                    A series of stories that centres around the NJ-resident Puerto Rican Junior and al his lost, failed and thwarted loves. Frank and funny as fuck - a word that, incidentally, appears a lot (as it should in all good books).

                    The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
                    More woeful, wonderfully told immigrant travails, covering characters from the zealous, insidious Communist witch-hunts of 50s Hollywood, to reluctant Israeli soldiers and existentially sapped Communist dissidents in US academia.

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                      #11
                      Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                      I did once read - and own - Bill Naughton's Goalkeeper's Revenge, if that helps.

                      "We've got to get the boy reading, dear. And not just ruddy sticker albums."
                      "Here's one with a footballer in the title, maybe that'll work."

                      And you know what, it did.

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                        #12
                        Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                        Since I read so little fiction, it's hard for me to add to this list in productive ways, but I really enjoyed Roberto Bolaño's "The Grub." I haven't had time to read other contributions to the collection that features this story.

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                          #13
                          Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                          Well, now we know from this thread that OTF is a hotbed of short fiction fanatics, I'd like to recommend Violet Kupersmith's thoughtful, imaginative collection The Frangipani Hotel. Please all post your reviews before the end of the week.

                          She's a young, US-Vietnamese writer who's based the stories on conversations with her Vietnamese grandmother. The pace is set by the beautiful, short opening scenario where the teenage kid interviews her grandmother for a school project. The kid knows her grandmother was one of the boat people, and wants a good, tense narrative to guarantee her a high grade. The grandmother tells some fantastical, magical realistic story. The kid wails that she'll never be able to hand this story in, it's not credible, and that if she keeps talking like that then her mother (the grandmother's daughter) will have her locked away. Yeah, says the grandmother, that's why I never tell your mother these stories. But what really happened? the kid complains. I've just told you everything you need to know, replies the grandmother.

                          And in that vein the book continues. I'm not a great fan of magical realism, but in this book it's laid down with such a light touch that it just serves to make you re-read the endings and really think about the tale, and every time you think about it you come up with a different interpretation. Which is how it should be.

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                            #14
                            Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                            Diane Cook's 'Man V Nature' is a remarkable collection. They're mostly bleak, doomsday scenarios that hold up a mirror to how we would behave in the face of death, severe political repression or the upcoming apocalypse. In 'The Way The End Of Days Should Be', a man with adequate supplies locks himself in his house as the flood waters rise and outside people drown, while his neighbour takes in as many people as will fit into his collapsing property. In the title story, three old schoolfriends are stranded in a becalmed lifeboat, and it turns out that two of them hate the protagonist, and always have. In 'Marrying Up' a woman seeks the strongest, most violent husband to protect her from the escalating violence in the city outside. In 'Somebody's Baby' a man waits outside houses to steal newborns, and there's apparently nothing the mothers can do about it. 'The Mast Year' is so brilliantly imagined in so many ways that I can't do it justice in a single sentence. There's loads of sex, swearing and plenty of hangman laughs too. What's not to like?

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                              #15
                              Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                              I remember Bill Naughton mainly as the playwright who wrote Spring and Port Wine (which I confess I know only from multiple viewings of the delightful film version with James Mason, Rodney Bewes, Susan George et al).

                              But as for short stories, I'm wondering if he's the one who wrote some grim short story I vaguely recall from school English lessons, about a lorry driver who [spoiler removed]. Was that one of Naughton's?

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                                #16
                                Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                Listened to Roddy Doyle's Bullfighting collection recently. Enjoyable, but they've blended together since. (Probably intentional, as they are all basically about late 40s men going through some sort of crisis.)

                                Nice thing about listening to it is hearing the reader's accurate accent (I assume). It adds a nice level of immersion.

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                                  #17
                                  Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                  Grrr, you want a question answering, you gotta research it yourself. Yes, that was a Naughton story I was remembering upthread. Specifically, Late Night on Watling Street.

                                  We read it English lessons in school (in the mid-70s). Must have been in my third year or earlier I think (what's now called Y9) because I don't think it was one of our O-level set texts.

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                                    #18
                                    Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                    We move at a more library-like pace over here in books, comrade Gauss. That was indeed the first story in the collection, and I was going to correct you on which vehicle had its brakes cut, but I see you've removed the spoiler for all the potential Bill Naughton readers out there.

                                    Interesting point from Matt about Doyle's collection - indeed, your only hope of selling a short story collection nowadays is to have them thematically linked, or narrated by the same person or have them all take place in the same environment/family/circle. And then the trick is to make those stories really stand out from each other, which Cook manages in her 'end days' collection very nicely. Sad to see she only has one review at amazon in the UK, but 54 in the US. I always feel these would be the kind of stories that, if you gave them to 15-year-olds to read in school, would be much more likely to convert them into long term book lovers.

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                                      #19
                                      Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                      The Not-Dead and the Saved by Kate Clanchy. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this collection. Some feel like early works - they're okay, but had a kind of 'creative writing course' feel about them, as though lots of tutors, and maybe agents and editors, had guided the writer through. (There's one story, Brunty Country, that's actually a satire on literary agents, but it doesn't quite work - too cartoonish and contrived.) The later stories, mostly set in the realm of motherhood, or not-motherhood, were more honest and more true. The title story, which won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2009, and Animal, Vegetable, are both magnificent. Overall, though, and this might sound absurd, these short stories were just a bit too shortstoryish for my liking.

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                                        #20
                                        Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                        Cockfosters by Helen Simpson. Her fifth volume of short works, which is some kind of publishing accomplishment, particularly as she's not that good. The ideas and themes are attractive enough - especially for middle class mid-lifers - but there's something about the dialogue between her characters that strikes me as completely unnatural. And like Kate Clanchy, she's a little enslaved by the conventional formats of what a short story is apparently supposed to be, meaning there's little by way of surprise or originality in either content or form. Take Kythera, which is a letter from a mother to her daughter in the form of a birthday cake recipe that ends up with a couple of nice lines*, but you know this is the kind of story they take out at creative writing classes and say, "Now this is how you write a short story", and that thought makes me slightly ill.

                                        * The narrator talks of her daughter's teenage years: "There followed showdowns in changing rooms and bust-ups on high streets; handles were flown all over the place, and I started to feel quite glum until one day, ding! it dawned on me that it was nothing personal... It wasn't me you couldn't stand: it was the me-mother. [...] I had to hold on to you, yes, but I also had to get off your back."

                                        Much as this passage contains a certain truth, I hate the insertion of the word "ding!" in there because it almost completely spoils it. Even if it reflects what such a mother might write to such a daughter, I don't care, it's as annoying in print as it would be if spoken. And there were a lot of places in this volume where I thought the same thing. Two and a half stars.

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                                          #21
                                          Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                          Short story writer Amber Sparks ponders why so many readers have a problem with the short story. I share her despair.

                                          Currently reading Neil Gaiman's very mixed collection Trigger Warning - mixed in the sense that he unapologetically switches styles and genres. In his intro he writes, "I grew up loving and respecting short stories. They seemed to me to be the purest and most perfect things people could make: not a word wasted, in the best of them. An author would wave her hand and suddenly there was a world, and people in it, and ideas. A beginning, a middle and an end that would take you across the universe and bring you back."

                                          I'm not entirely happy jumping about in such an eclectic fashion, and this is clearly a compilation of bits and bobs, but there's tons of stuff here to like - even the Dr Who fan fiction story is very good. The old-fashioned horror story Click-Clack the Rattlebag is very short and magnificent - as a kid it would have freaked me out and I'd have read it a hundred times over.

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                                            #22
                                            Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                            I can unreservedly recommend the following five short story volumes. Quotes taken pretty much at random.

                                            Colin Barrett: Young Skins
                                            Outstanding collection, set in one Irish town full of melancholy failures and violent piss-heads. Opening line sets the scene nicely: “My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits.”

                                            Katherine Heiny: Single, Carefree, Mellow
                                            Stories about sex, relationships, dying dogs etc. Sample quote (from a story about falling in love online where the main character is recalling meeting her new love in the flesh for the first time): "She only remembers sitting down across from him in this very same coffee shop, and how he held her icy hands with his dry warm ones and said, 'What are you so nervous about?' And Josie had whispered, 'Because we're doing this all backwards,' meaning, of course, that their minds had fallen in love before their bodies did and what if their bodies got all stubborn and wouldn't fall in line?"

                                            Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Thing Around Your Neck
                                            The author of stellar novel Americanah has written a collection which, in the words of the blurb, "explores the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States." Sample quote: "You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don't buy a gun like those Americans."

                                            Thomas Morris: We Don't Know What We're Doing
                                            With some irony, I accidentally bought this collection twice, but it wasn't hard to find another home for the second copy. This is the Welsh answer to Colin Barrett (see above), though at a slightly more casual pace. Sample quote: "But once my virginity was gone I grew hungry with the loss, and I'd try to turn every innocent kiss into the start of foreplay. And as she became more confident in her body, I (believing myself to be responsible for her transformation) became cocky. And when that happened, the balance between us shifted: as I became the confident one, she became clingy. And I grew attached to being needed and I abused the feeling. On evenings when she was really down, I feigned illness, fatigue, anything that would elicit her desperation. I would leave her house early, to have her beg me to stay."

                                            Rick Bass: For A Little While - new and selected stories
                                            Sounds stupid to say, but Bass is one of those writers who truly is a writer, who you read for no other reason that his writing is perfectly balanced and poetic in almost every sentence. There's a certain tone to his prose whereby you imagine reading his stories in the careful, gravelly voice of an American man aged around 60. I could open any one of the 466 pages and find something quotable: "'This way,' Matthew said, taking a cigarette lighter out of his pack. 'Look at me,' he said. 'Watch.' He walked down to the nearest dead tree, an old wind-blasted fir, shrouded dense with black hanging lichen. 'This is what you do,' he said. His words came in breaths of steam rising in the rain. He stood under the canopy of the tree's branches and moss cloak and snapped the lighter a couple of times, holding it right up against the lichen tendrils. On the third snap the lichen caught, burned blue for a moment, then leapt into a quick orange flame."

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                                              #23
                                              Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                              I know OTF has been collectively wondering why I haven't been talking to myself on the short story thread for a while. Well, I read Lucia Berlin's A Manual For Cleaning Women a while back, and it was every bit as good as the hype on the inner jacket inviting us into a life of "beauty, pain, laughter, drink and surprising moments of grace." Here's the first para from the story Her First Detox:

                                              "Carlotta woke, during the fourth week of steady October rain, in the County detox ward. I'm in a hospital, she thought, and walked shakily down the hall. There were two men in a large room that would have been sunny if it weren't raining. The men were ugly, wore black-and-white denim. They were bruised, had bloody bandages. These men are here from a prison but then she saw that she was wearing black-and-white denim, that she was bruised and bloody too. She remembered handcuffs, a straitjacket."

                                              Now I'm reading The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams. It's taken me a while to get into it because the tone of the stories is so similar, but I've got around that by only sporadically dipping in to the volume. The other day I was really taken with this opening, to the story The Last Generation:

                                              "He was nine.
                                              'Nine,' his father would say, 'there's an age for you. When I was nine...' and so on.
                                              His father's name was Walter and he was a mechanic at a Chevrolet garage in Tallahassee. He had a seventeen-year-old brother named Walter Jr., and he was Tommy. The boys had no mother, she'd been killed in a car wreck a while before.
                                              It had not been her fault."

                                              I love the sparse style, and that you can already glean so much from four short, simple paragraphs.

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                                                #24
                                                Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                                I don't like to see imp abandoned.

                                                I thought The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon was an excellent collection.

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                                                  #25
                                                  Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

                                                  Almost 14 months to the day since anyone besides me contributed to this thread - thank you, Mr B. You will stay for a cup of tea, won't you? What, you have to be going? But you'll pop by again, won't you? [Sound of car reversing on a gravel driveway.] Say hi to Mrs B and all the little beasts too!

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