The Short Story as Abstract Art

They say that in art, it’s impossible to be truly original. There can be nothing new, because everything has been done before. But in the world of fiction writing, some people are going to extreme lengths to make their writing different. Maybe their approach to writing needs a name. Abstract Literature, or Ab-Lit, might fit the bill.

I had some emails recently reminding me about a couple of short story competitions. One, an Australian competition, particularly caught my eye, partly because it appears to be quite prestigious, and partly because the prize money is substantial (although the entry fee is large too). It made me think I should really be entering some competitions this year. For that, I would obviously have to write some more short stories. It’s difficult to find the time, whilst working on the final edit of my latest novel (now completed) and keeping the blog up-to-date, as well as setting up a new blog, on gardening (www.pullingweeds.co.uk). But I’ve made a start. I found some inspiration, and I’ve written one story so far.

I thought perhaps I should research the kind of thing the organisers are looking for, rather than just send them my story and hope for the best. In fact I entered this competition last year, with a not very short, short story (just under 5,000 words) called Drop Bear. Part parable, part fantasy, it’s an anthropomorphic, dark, adult fairy tale. I think it’s quite original – I don’t think I’ve read (or written) anything like it before, so I thought the Aussies might take to it, particularly as it centres on everyone’s favourite irascible marsupial.

The organisers were kind enough to put the three winning stories from last year on their website for all to read. I did. And now I know why I didn’t get anywhere. My storylines might be unusual, but my writing style is almost certainly too conventional. Unlike the winners, whose writing is anything but. For instance, they’re not big on punctuation. Two of the stories don’t have any full stops. One apparently marks the end of each sentence with a blank line. Initial caps don’t figure greatly. One uses a lot of questions, but no question marks. The sentences (if that’s what they are) get longer and longer, and ever more unintelligible as the story goes on. Another apparently uses initial caps to mark each new sentence (but there are no full stops to end them).

None of the three used speech marks (so passé) though one did mark speech by marooning it between double line breaks before and after. I didn’t feel any of the three had a particularly striking plot. The winning story had a bit of a twist, but an unsatisfactory ending. Much of the grammar was, if you’ll pardon my use of the vernacular, a bit crap. I’m sure it was knowingly crap but, together with the weird formatting, it made them difficult to read, and I can’t say that reading these stories was, for me, a pleasurable experience.

Writing in a style that’s different is a good thing, if it’s done in a positive way. But is this the case here, or is it just pretentiousness? I can’t help wondering if this competition has gone so far in the direction of originality that (slipping once more, rather too easily into the vernacular) it’s in danger of disappearing up it’s own backside.

There were some interesting ideas, particularly in the winning story – some effective descriptive phrases and evocations of atmosphere. Inevitably, I found myself wondering what, if anything, the winners have that I don’t. These stories made me wonder if my stories are too linear, too literal, and with too much explained. But then, it is called ‘story telling’, isn’t it, and not ‘story showing’?  I think this is something some creative writing critics and teachers need to be reminded of now and again. And surely there’s room for different approaches. Variation in writing, as in all art, should be seen as a good thing.

I try to follow a principle espoused by some of the authors that I most admire, which is that an author’s primary aim is to communicate their meaning. Taking out all the punctuation and mashing up the grammar may (or may not) make you look clever, but it won’t help you communicate with the reader. I want to communicate meaning, not create a piece of modern art. So I won’t be entering the ‘Australian Turner Prize for Short Fiction’. There goes my chance of winning 5,000 bucks!

The other competition is the Bridport Prize. I’ve entered this one before too, and not got anywhere (are you recognising a pattern yet?) At £10, it too isn’t cheap to enter, and I’d like to have a look at some previous winners. Unfortunately, the only way to do this seems to be to buy their anthology, and at £10 a copy I’d rather not. If anyone has read any of the anthologies of past winners, I’d be grateful for a ‘heads up’ on the kind of thing they might be looking for.

Unfortunately I seem to be trapped between two extremes. On the one hand you’ve got the arty, trendy, freestyle, anything goes school of writing, that may look clever, but doesn’t, I think, communicate very well. At the other extreme there’s the rather facile, ‘show don’t’ tell’, take out anything that doesn’t ‘move the plot forward’, must have a beginning, a middle and an end and a twist in the tale style of writing favoured by magazines like Writers’ Forum. I’m struggling to find anything in between. So if anyone has any ideas of competitions or magazines that are not looking for stories that are either absurdly pretentious or shallow and formulaic, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know. And for anyone who hasn’t seen my work and is wondering whether it’s any good, there are a couple of recently added short stories on the download page that you can read for free (that’s FREE, as in it doesn’t cost anything). But be warned, those koalas bite!

Text and graphic copyright © Graham Wright 2017

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About literarylad

Graham Wright is an author whose first novel, Single Point Perspective, is set in and around the city of Manchester, where he lived and worked for more than fifteen years. It's a dramatic piece of literary fiction that is easy to read, imaginative, serious and thoughtful, but with a sense of humour. Graham now lives in South Wales, and is busy writing his second novel.
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