“The story occupies that place between waking and dreaming, which gives it an especially hypnotic presence.”
Graham Mort’s latest publication is Cusp a selection of poems from Seren (2011). He was the winner of the Bridport Prize for short fiction in 2007 and his collection of short fiction, Touch, also from Seren, won the 2011 Edge Hill prize. Graham is working on a new book of longer short fiction, Terroir. He is currently professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University.
I’ve never really positioned the short story over other forms, because I’ve always written stories alongside poems – stories with poetic motifs and patterns of language, narrative poems that imply stories. Some of the first work I ever read and admired was by Dylan Thomas. He wrote short stories and poems, so it just seemed natural to me. The reason I love the short story form is that is can be taken close to perfection – or an idea of it. Stories can be simple, and elegant because of that simplicity. Like a poem, a story can be shaped as a kind of architectural form of language. It’s also possible to experiment with narrative technique – voice, point of view, the exploration of consciousness – and not get locked into one kind of narrative style. So stories are malleable enough to work on and short enough to sacrifice if they go wrong. I like their resonant implications, the way that a good story has a really big impact, lingering in the reader’s mind. There’s an intensity to one’s relationship to short forms, both as a reader and as a writer. I’m interested in sequencing too, the way that stories can be linked, but have significant space left between them – I’ve been experimenting with that idea in some recent work.
Speaking of space, I’ve heard you talk of space within a piece, of leaving room for the reader to somehow complete as well as experience the story. Can you tell us a little about this?
The critic Wolfgang Iser said that a literary work contains ‘gaps, blanks and indeterminacies’ that the reader fills in as they read in order to realise the work through in the virtual or imaginative dimension. I think that’s an important insight and relates to Eliot’s notion of emotional affect being brought about by the ‘objective correlative’. As well as language operating at the level of signification, the setting of a story and its sensory detail also signify in an affective way. No story could ever be complete or we’d be writing in real time, so the author is selective and the final form of a story is really a point of abandonment where the work begins to travel through time and space towards the reader – who might not yet be born. Each reader ‘rescues’ the text and each encounters it in a different personal and cultural context, activating it through their own experience of life and literature. The porosity of the text draws them in – its selective evocations and (particularly in short fiction) the way the story itself is fragmentary. Susan Sontag said that a photograph was an ‘invitation to speculation’ and I think a poem or short story works in the same way. The story is formulated as an aspect of the writer’s consciousness and activated or catalysed by the reader’s consciousness. It follows that the story only really exists when this activation takes place. At this point typography and language has been decoded and realised as virtual experience that is itself a form of shared consciousness with very complex contingencies.
How conscious, then, are you of manipulating the reader during composition in order to achieve such effect and affect? That is, are you, as an author, making decisions about a story’s structure, point of view, sequence of events with such ‘gaps, blanks and indeterminacies’ in mind, or are they engendered incidentally as you concentrate on thematic qualities of the story?
Yes, I think those spaces are engendered through the unfolding narrative, but I wouldn’t say they were entirely incidental or accidental. Bruno Latour said, ‘In theory, theories exist. In practice they do not.’ So the theory of ‘blanks, gaps and indeterminacies’ is immensely useful in understanding how text and the reader interact and it offers a degree of rationale for the intended texture and level of detail in our writing. But to what extent such ‘porous’ writing becomes deliberately formulated as a result is hard to say. I prefer to think that this knowledge becomes active at a tacit or even haptic level within the kinetic writing process. As I said earlier, we can’t express the actual dimensions of time and space, because the task of writing could never keep up with the density and pace of actuality, so lacunae are inevitable. But when we move to the process of revision, then I think the tacit knowledge becomes more focused and explicit: like that game of Jenga, it helps us to decide how we can remove elements of the text whilst implying their presence. So narrative structures become lighter but also more resonant and intimate places for the reader because readers are more active in their realisation.
Short stories are often charged with bridging the gap between the novel and the poem, at times boasting the narrative arc of the former, the cadence and lyricism of the latter. Your forthcoming story ‘Terroir’ achieves this particularly well, and yet, as with the best stories, there’s an indefinable quality to it, of its whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say: great stories linger in the mind, resonating long after reading, getting under the skin in a way the novel can’t. Why do you think this might be?
Yes, that’s an interesting observation. One reason may be that we live within a novel for a longer period and it becomes more familiar – only a few incredibly intense novelists like William Faulkner, Patrick White or Cormack McCarthy can sustain a long-term sense of dislocation or unease. The short story is a compressed form and it is has a very high voltage as a result. The points of connections are closer together and their sense of discharge is very immediate. Another reason is possibly to do with the roots of the short story in orature – in story telling – the short form has evolved to fit between a day’s activity and a night’s sleep. In a sense it occupies – once literally, now metaphorically – that place between waking and dreaming, which gives it an especially hypnotic presence. I think it lingers in the mind because it is assimilated there in its entirety; it rewards the effort of reading more immediately. Stories are almost always read at one sitting and become part of the tissue of our consciousness because of that. They have a special shape. People on a beach will always pick up smooth stones that just fit into the palm of their hand; the short story shares some of that essential ‘rightness’ of form, weight and texture.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the future of the short story, as it faces the challenges of a digital age, of shifting trends in fiction. For example, despite the bias of publishers towards the novel, new voices, particularly in Europe, continue to emerge in short fiction, invigorating the form, finding literary outlets despite the odds. Is the story’s prognosis, in your opinion, a healthy one?
Well, the fortunes of literary forms can be fickle. For a number of years interest in short fiction seemed to wane. Sadly, it’s just been set back on BBC radio, to which it’s ideally suited. But now it’s back as a published form and there is increasing interest in all its possibilities, from flash fiction to the novella. I think it’s very suited as a short form to some of the new electronic media, such as ebooks and smart phones. Portability of device plus brevity make it ideal for people in motion – and it’s been said that the rise of the short story coincided with the rise of the railways in the nineteenth century. I think there are other reasons why it will endure. One is because it lends itself to experimentation in both writing and publishing that can remain independent of large-scale commercial interests. The novel has become this great commercial thing with so many prizes and accolades, but in large publishing houses the marketing department has the last say. That’s tough on emergent writers and can distort their perspectives and ambition to succeed – that is, to gain publication. Publishing on a large international scale is a form of capitalism and nothing is safe in its arms because it’s a protean and highly adaptive system without moral perspective or cultural values. Its defining values are about income generation and profit and that’s a tyrannical bottom-line that writers have both to acknowledge and resist. I think writers, however different from each other, are essentially working in the interests of human understanding, liberty and solidarity. Short fiction and poetry are highly mobile forms than can be published singly or in anthologies and continue to assert an independence of spirit and vision. I think that short fiction will continue to flourish as a form of resistance or alternative to corporate publishing and as an expression of human vitality, variety and spontaneity.