There was a really interesting piece in The Huffington Post yesterday on “what makes a good short story”, by Heidi Pitlor. Heidi is the series editor of the mighty annual Best American Short Stories anthology, so she can safely be taken to know a little of what she writes. There’s plenty of excellent advice in there, particularly this paragraph:
Here are some things I’m always glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters (who says we readers all crave likable characters?); bone-scraping emotional honesty; a strange, off-kilter voice; unreliable narrators; surprise; a solid command of language; a story written with urgency and profundity; great, weird titles (titles matter); the assigning of language to something I have never thought about but should have. Humor.
It’s that last word that leapt out at me – especially as it wasn’t the first time she’d used it in her piece. Here’s an earlier paragraph:
Here are some things I wish I saw more frequently: humor, genre-bending, humor, risk-taking, a more direct addressing of real world matters, humor.
This reminded me a little of the time when Tracy Chevalier was the judge for the Bridport Prize and reading her report, you could detect a bit of a cry for help, having been given a final list to choose from whose subject matter was almost exclusively pretty grim. I hasten to add that most of the stories were excellent (most especially Vanessa Gebbie’s “I Can Squash the King, Tommo” and Toby Litt’s “The Fish”, an extraordinary piece of weirdness that somehow snuck in undetected), but having read the anthology, I can sympathise with her comment here:
It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting, to find out what subjects people choose to writing about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: aging and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.
and especially this:
If only writers could be a little, well, jollier about it! Sorely missing from the entries was humour, with the honourable exceptions of “Ghost Lights,” which made me laugh aloud, and “The Fish,” with its surreal subject matter and bravura style (there is only one full-stop, at the end of the story). Otherwise, reading the stories made me more and more depressed. While I’m not in a position to chastise – I myself am not known for many laughs in my books – I would like to make a plea to future writers: humour is good! Not only that, but a funny story is so much harder to write than a sad one. Let it be a challenge to us all. I will if you will.
Judging by Heidi Pitlor’s remarks, there still aren’t enough short story writers around who have accepted that challenge. I wonder if it’s because if you write humorous stuff, you don’t get taken as seriously. There haven’t been many out and out funny stories in the shortlists for the BBC NSSA award, for instance, although Julian Gough’s wonderful “iHole” from last year’s shortlist was a rare exception (and this wasn’t the first time he’d made the shortlist – he won in 2007 – so perhaps he has some kind of pass ). Is it simply because, as Chevalier says, it’s more difficult to write a funny story – or is it because the primary stage readers are trained to weed out that kind of thing before they get near the judges?
Why does this matter to me? It matters personally because there I think humour is massively important as a storytelling tool, and most, if not all, of my stories have an element of humour in them. I can’t see that changing, frankly, because that’s the way I am. I’m incapable of staying serious for very long. So does that mean that, however much I improve as a writer, I’ll always be regarded as a bit of a lightweight? And should I care?