Thursday, June 21, 2007

On short stories and writing styles

Over the last few months, I’ve been suffering through somewhat mild but debilitating bouts of insomnia. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I get tired of lying in bed and hoping to fall back asleep, so I turn on the light and read. The problem, of course, is that if I happen to read an engrossing novel, my mind refuses to give up the ghost and I pretty much read through the night. As a result, I’ve been scouring my pile o’books for short story anthologies. Although I end up reading through the night anyway, the rediscovery of short stories has been a very pleasant one; I think that prior to The Great 2K7 Insomnia Attack, the last time I had willingly picked up a book of short stories was when Stephen King’s “Everything’s Eventual” was released, some five or so years ago. In the course of my current foray into literature’s red-headed stepchild, I came across a few previously unread jewels, such as Ray Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” and T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom” – yes, I have a penchant for the macabre; sue me – as well as some phenomenal warhorses which I had almost forgotten existed. I’ve chosen two oldies but goodies to illustrate how radically different writing styles can be equally effective.

Unadorned and minimalist:
Horacio Quiroga (Uruguayan, 1878-1937) has often been called “The South American Poe,” but that comparison, flattering though it may appear at first glance, is very misleading. Quiroga believed that writing should be stark and economical. He set forth ten rules for writing short stories (Decálogo del cuentista), and many of these rules deal with directness. One of my favourites: “Toma a tus personajes de la mano y llévalos firmemente hasta el final, sin ver otra cosa que el camino que les trazaste. No te distraigas viendo tú lo que ellos no pueden o no les interesa ver. No abuses del lector.” (“Take your characters by the hand and lead them directly to the story’s end, without veering from the path you have determined for them. Do not get distracted by trying to see things they cannot see or are not interested in seeing. Do not abuse the reader.”) Even his rules for writing are devoid of embellishment! His most famous short story anthology, “Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte” (“Tales of love, madness, and death”), is an absolute masterpiece. It includes the most original vampire story ever written, “El almohadón de plumas” (“The Feather Pillow”), as well as one of the most grotesquely chilling stories I have ever read: “La gallina degollada (“The Decapitated Chicken”).

Metaphorical and embroidered:
Nathaniel Hawthorne (American, 1804-1864) was a holdover from the Puritan age, and it shines through his writing. His short stories and novels are rife with allegories and not-so-subtle lessons on morality and the struggle against evil. Hawthorne’s writing is the polar opposite of Quiroga’s. It can best be described as narrative poetry. Although unimaginative or impatient readers tend to get lost in his imagery, I have always felt that Hawthorne is the best writer the US has ever produced. Witness the following excerpt from “Young Goodman Brown,” a story that deals with the loss of faith: “He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that, with lonely footsteps, he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.” My, my, my… has there ever been a more brilliantly written metaphor for hidden evils? (The answer is a thunderous NO!) Although “Young Goodman Brown” is Hawthorne’s best-known story, my personal favourite is an astonishingly beautiful retelling of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace: “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”


Mado said...

That sounds interesting. Even if I need a damn dictionnary to read you !!
Do you think that I could borrow one or both of them by any chance ? :)

Bitter Clevelander said...

You can borrow anything you like, but why not just follow the links to the stories? It's what they're there for!