OK. Let’s get a couple of things clear up front…
- This post isn’t about speed-dating
- Actually I’ve never had any experience of speed-dating, so if you hear anything to the contrary they are just vile rumours
So, speed-dating. The ‘topic’ – or at least the title of the topic – comes from a recent post of mine: “Grand Union”. In it, I suggested that using an author’s short stories to get to know them was a bit like ‘speed-dating’. I don’t know about you, but my impression of speed-dating is a frantic merry-go-round of “Hello, my name’s Brian / Amanda / Robert / Robyn…” punctuated by a little bell ringing every 5 minutes. [And no, like I said, I’ve no experience of it. At all.]
Or let’s put it another way. Do we think that short stories are a representative and useful introduction to a writer’s longer work?
My default answer – and perhaps the logical one – is ‘Yes’. Surely a short story provides us with a snapshot of a writer’s style, the kinds of language they use, structure, themes and so on. Indeed, it would be possible to come up with a list of renowned authors whose shorter fiction is a microcosm of their novels.
But inevitably there will be outliers. After all, the short story demands a very different discipline; it forces the writer to ‘get on with things’. So someone who likes their fiction to ‘meander’, to take time to build up layers of varnish on the picture they are painting – like Henry James, perhaps – might struggle with the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am of its more succinct cousin. (James doesn’t, obviously.) There will also be instances where short stories are early pieces, the playground where a writer is trying things out, making discoveries. On the face of it, would you have expected the author of Dubliners to have also written Finnegan’s Wake? Or vice versa?
There could be short story writers who simply don’t have the mindset or stamina to successfully execute a novel. Or perhaps the short story might offer the novelist an opportunity to take on a second persona; “Monday to Friday I’m Michael – solid and dependable – but at the weekends it’s Mikey – fast and loose”. In such cases then the short story would not be a reasonable introduction. The five minutes before the bell rang would be highly unsatisfactory – or the lifetime that followed it!
On balance, I think the argument that a collection of short stories is a decent starter for an author’s entrée just about stands. And finding someone whose short and long fiction are both really good is surely a measure of consummate talent.
So give speed-dating a go. Short stories seem to be sexier than they were a few years ago – and you never know, you may fall in love…