Author Jorge Louis Borges once famously said words to the effect that “a novel is a piece of writing that has something wrong with it.” Borges preferred the short story, regarding the novel (especially the epic) as a stale, deathly form. And while many writers and readers would disagree with Borges (maybe most), even they would have to concede that there is a slump, an air of sluggishness, that starts to seep into all but the most superlative novel-length works around the second half of the story’s midpoint. Entire books have been dedicated to solving the problem posed by this structural sluggishness in the second act.
The short story obviously doesn’t have the same problem as the novel, though the concision of the form brings with it other problems, like precluding certain aims that a novel can better fulfill. Or maybe not. Have you ever read a short story that was so satisfying, so brilliant at encapsulating all of life’s complexity, that you finished it feeling like you had just read an entire novel? It’s a rare occurrence, but it does happen from time to time. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor is just such a story.
Some people find their way to the short story for more prosaic, less intellectual reasons than Borges. Raymond Carver may have been a master of the form (I think he was), but he only took it up because his day job at a sawmill didn’t leave him enough free time to work on a novel. Other writers—especially during the Golden Age of the Pulps and the later tsunami of “men’s mags”—wrote shorts because that was where the money was.
I certainly don’t claim to be a master of the short story, and neither do I write it because I have a philosophical or aesthetic beef with the novel. That said, I don’t really do it for the money, either, as my bank account can easily attest. And I have more than enough free time to permit me to write another novel, should things take me in that direction.
Still, I’ll cop to a great fascination with the short story, and more than a bit of frustration with my inability to break the mystery of the form down into a set of discreet rules or guidelines. If, as Borges also said, “art is fire plus algebra,” maybe I’m spending too much time with my calculator and not enough time rubbing two sticks together.
I mean, maybe I’m just overthinking it.
If one spends too much time pondering their failures and missteps, they’ll cease to move altogether. There’s a parable about a centipede shuffling happily along a green leaf, who encounters a red ant, its antennae dowsing. “How do you move all those legs?” the ant asks.
The centipede, after pondering the question a moment, discovers himself paralyzed. Presumably a shrew or a toad came along a bit later to devour the poor insect. Maybe the ant set him up, asked him that question just to throw him off his game, immobilizing the pathetic arthropod in the hopes that he (the centipede) and not the ant would get devoured?
Anyway, let me tell you about my own centipedal problem, which revolves around a dispute between two men long-since dead, modernist writer Anton Chekhov and English polemicist William Cobbett.
No, the men didn’t have a spat during their respective lifetimes (it would have been hard, as Cobbett died well before Chekhov’s birth), but there are bits of their aesthetic philosophies which seem to disagree with each other, or at least jar when I attempt to resolve them one to the other.
Briefly, Anton Chekhov, in personal correspondences, put forth the principle that every element in a story must be necessary, and that irrelevant elements that never come into play in early drafts should be removed in subsequent drafts. This has come to be known as “Chekhov’s Gun.” If the author mentions a gun over the mantlepiece in the first act, that gun needs to come into play at some point in the story. The cinematic equivalent would probably be an insert or closeup of the gun, which needs to be somehow incorporated into the film, fired and seen smoking preferably before the denouement.
Fine and dandy, but here we have William Cobbett coming forward (crawling out of the grave to argue with the Russian playwright), with his concept of the red herring. He popularized the term in association with a literal herring, mind you, employed to distract scenting hounds from chasing rabbits. One would cast about salted, pickled fish, which would give off a strong scent to mask the smell of the hares being hunted by dogs whose olfactory bulbs were no doubt driven crazy by the kippers.
But the principle of deliberate misdirection can easily be extended from the hunt to the stage (or the page or the screen). Such misdirection is also the lifeblood of the magician’s act, the ability to shift the audience’s collective attention, especially those “smart marks,” in the crowd who are keen-eyed and vigilant, hip to the tricks that the average magician might employ. The hand is quicker than the eye, however, as the saying goes, and unless the mark is especially churlish (or has wagered more than he can stand to lose), his reaction to being tricked is likely to be one of amusement, even minor joy.
Fans of mysteries love to try to solve them in advance, and while there is a certain sense of satisfaction to be had when one guesses right, it can’t be compared to the pleasure felt when one is wrong.
But do you see the problem, or rather, the contradiction that’s giving me this minor case of dyspepsia at 12:54 a.m. on a Wednesday night? Misdirection requires saying Look here, while using one’s hands to prepare another trick that the viewer hasn’t anticipated and must not see being setup in order to get the satisfaction that comes with the payoff. It’s a hell of a lot less impressive to watch me pull a white rabbit out of a silk top hat if you see me stuffing the rabbit down there beforehand.
Let’s perform a little experiment:
Say there are a husband and wife getting ready to have dinner. The husband is seated at the table, bitterly recriminating his wife for her terrible cooking skills, saying that he is miserable with her and wishes she were dead.
Quickly he glances above the mantelpiece at an old hunting rifle hanging from a pair of rusted tenpenny nails. We hear his thoughts, in voiceover, as was sometimes employed in the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents shows. It’s a somewhat antiquated device, like the screen going all blurry and the playing of the strings of a harp as we dissolve to a flashback, but it will serve for our purposes.
I seem to remember I left a round in there, Hubby thinks, since the last time I went hunting. Quickly he cuts his eyes from the shotgun back to wifey still slaving over the pot, stirring the food with a ladle and then lifting the wooden ladle to her lips to taste her soup. Not bad, she thinks (we’re also privy to her thoughts).
“Don’t forget the salt,” Hubby barks, eyes flitting between the gun on the mantlepiece and his wife in the final stages of preparing the meal.
“As you wish, dear.”
The wife scoops a couple ladlesful of steaming soup into a bowl for her husband, and adds a few dashes of salt to his meal. She’d like to give her own soup some kick, but alas, she suffers from hypertension and must forgo even the most meagre pinch of salt. She carries his food to the table, and he begins to slurp the broth. “Bah!” he complains. “It’s scalding!”
“Maybe you should let it cool?” Wifey says, congenially, before walking back over to the stove to make her own much blander bowl.
“Bah!” he says again, outdoing the hammiest interpreter of Ebenezer Scrooge for cantankerousness. “It’ll taste awful, either way. And at least if it’s scalding it’ll numb my tastebuds.” And soon, he thinks, eyes drawn again to the gun above the mantlepiece, you won’t be able to poison me with your lousy cooking anymore. Just you wait, you heifer, until--
Suddenly, Hubby’s interior monologue is truncated. He drops his spoon to the bowl, where its stainless steel handle rattles against the bowl’s ersatz China. He reaches his hands up to his throat, eyes bulging, making a choking sound.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Wifey asks, her tone still gentle, conciliatory, light as a bird’s coo.
Hubby points to his constricting throat, his eyes rolling into the back of his skull, and he topples head over heels, landing on the hardwood floor with a heavy thud.
“Hmm,” Wifey says, shrugging her narrow shoulders and helping herself to another spoonful of her own bowl of soup. “Mine tastes perfectly fine.”
Then our focus puller tweaks the lens’s optics just a bit to make the condiments sitting on the counter a bit more prominent to the viewer. “Then again,” Wifey says, glancing at the cutglass salt and pepper shakers, “I didn’t add salt to mine.”
Alright, so this story is not going to win an Edgar, and barely constitutes more than a cliche-ridden vignette. But the point is clear, or at least clear enough for me to put this blog post to bed.
The gun mentioned in the first act should not be used at all, at least not by the characters. It was only used by me, the author (or the director, or playwright) to get you to focus on it so that the reader could potentially find themselves surprised to discover that Wifey was the one with the weapon and genuine murderous intentions, despite her demure, submissive veneer. Hubby, for all his rudeness and crudity, was just kind of an asshole, not an actual killer (though his interior monologue suggests he was at least thinking about it).
If the shotgun truly did its job in this piece—not firing, but rather distracting you with its potential to fire—I even got away with explicitly telling you (through the husband’s interior monologue) that Wifey was literally poisoning him. Sure, in his musings, it was only an exaggerated way for the husband to gripe about her lack of cooking skills. The full irony is only comprehended at the end of the episode, when Hitchcock, porcine jowls a-waddling, gets in a joke at the dead hubby’s expense: “He said she was poisoning him. I don’t know why, then, he still proceeded to eat the soup.”
I understand that Chekov was a master of the short story. Anyone who doubts this, seek out the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, which is a peerless work on the major prerevolutionary Russian short story writers. That said, though, tonight I gotta side with the Englishman waving around his barrelful of pickled herrings. The gun mentioned in the first act doesn’t have to be used at all.
Does believing this make me a fool?
It’s probably one of the things that makes me a fool, something which needs to be added to the list already as long as my nightshirt.
But all any writer can hope for is an epitaph similar to the one Hunter Thompson inadvertently proffered during an interview, shrugging his shoulders and scowling from beneath his green eyeshade: “Yeah, I’m a fool, but a pretty good read, too.”