The Short Story Project ~ The Sacristan of St Botolph

IMG_0046I’m willing to lay a small wager that you all thought I’d forgotten about The Short Story Project, but not a bit of it.  I simply had to make my way first through a number of books that I’d promised to post reviews for on specific dates.  In future such promises will be contingent on it being possible to fit the books in around more pressing and more interesting concerns.

As I said in my last post on the subject, I’m starting out with A S Byatt’s edited collection of English Short Stories for OUP.  This proved to be a felicitous choice because independently a friend had selected it to use as a set text for a new module she is teaching this year on short fiction, so we will be able to compare notes as we go.  The collection is arranged chronologically consequently that is going to be one of the first factors I shall be taking into account when I have enough data to begin drawing some conclusions.

Having said all that, chronologically speaking, I got off to a bad start with the initial story which is credited to a William Gilbert who lived from 1540 to 1603.  This would make the text something of an anomaly as all the other stories are from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries but, when I read it, I was quite willing to think that it was from the Early Modern period because the tale, entitled The Sacristan of St Botolph, would fit in well to an age in which the conduct of churchmen was constantly coming under close scrutiny from one side of the religious divide or the other.  However, thinking it would be useful to know something of the particular religious stance of the author before setting out on an analysis I discovered an editing error.  Yes, there was a William Gilbert with roughly those dates (1544 – 1603) and he wrote – a lot, but not short stories.  In fact he was a scientist and is known as the father of electricity. The William Gilbert who should have been cited was very definitely a nineteenth century man (1804 – 1890) and the story anthologised dates from 1866.  While this doesn’t change the results of my analysis it does throw an interesting light on what I found.

The Sacristan of St Botolph is the story of Geoffrey Cole, the eponymous churchman.  Mr Cole is not a man whose acquaintance I am in a hurry to make:

Although something of a miser, intensely selfish, and most uncharitable, both in the matter of giving alms, and in his feeling towards his neighbours, he was extremely punctilious in all the external forms and ceremonies of the Church, and he flattered himself he was not only very religious, but even a model of piety.  The more he studied the subject, the more certain of his blissful state he became, till at last he believed himself to be so good that the saints alone were his equals.

You get the picture.

Now, the sacristan has a bit of a penchant for widows and it is to one of these that he makes the claim that he would like to be subjected to the same temptations as was St Anthony to see if he could resist them.  Well, we all know, don’t we, that you should be careful what you wish for.  Arriving home that night he requested a neighbour’s wife to light his lamp and his fire for him (I have other suggestions as to what she should have done with whatever combustable she used!) ate a hearty meal and retired to bed.  You’ve probably worked out what happens next.

The sacristan is visited by an imp.  What is more the imp is accompanied by a very large, very stubborn and very truculent pig and we have the archetypal three occasions on which the self-aggrandising Mr Cole is forced to suffer total humiliation despite his best efforts to maintain the standards of living and personal dignity to which he has become accustomed.  The last of these three episodes differs from the other two in as much as a completely new set of characters are introduced and the sacristan is surrounded by a group of musicians and dancers all of the most fantastic and many even of the most horrible shapes.  He is led into what I thought was going to be a dance of death.

The sacristan now danced with all his might, his grotesque figure flying about in all directions, while he performed the most eccentric steps.  He became more and more excited with the scene, and danced with still greater vigour.

However, suddenly everything vanishes and Mr Cole, left stranded, on a dark heath in the pouring rain, has a moment of enlightenment and resolves henceforth to be a better human being, becoming

a good charitable man, doing his duty in the church, giving alms of all he had to the poor, and contend with being thought no better than his neighbours.

No, I didn’t believe it either.

But, what you really want to know is how the story stacked up in respect of its narrative structure.  Well, this text certainly is a full story in as much as it has all the elements I outlined when I was discussing The Three Little Pigs (all, of course, far more civilised than the one the sacristan encounters). Present are the exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and resolution.   So, as far as my theory goes, this is a counter example.  However, it isn’t a very satisfactory story, especially in terms of its beginning and its end, which has set me off wondering if I shan’t find myself taking into account factors other than the grammatical narrative structure. Of course, this kind of thing always happens once you start looking at real data.  It’s where the fun of research lies.

The problem at the beginning seems to stem from the fact that the inciting moment, that is the event that kicks off the event line, comes before the exposition.  In a full length novel that is not that unusual, but the difficulty here is that the action that gives the initial thrust to the story is the repeated absence of one Master Walter de Courcey from church and as his name is the first thing the reader mets in the text it sets up the expectation that the narrative is going to be about him.  We never met him again.

At the end the difficulty comes about for two reasons. In her introduction to the volume Byatt comments on this text that the end is not fully achieved, and that is something of an understatement.  We are simply told

The spell under which he had been labouring for some days past was broken, and he found he had been making a great fool of himself.

You might be excused for thinking that this is the nineteenth century equivalent of and then I woke up and it was all a dream.

This is then compounded by the fact that the sacristan experiences a complete change of heart in the space of half a dozen lines and becomes a reformed character.  It simply isn’t believable.

I suspect that there is something contextual going on here and that if I had read this in 1866 when it was first published I would have responded to it in a very different way.  Reading it for the first time in 2014, however, I find myself thinking that in organisational terms there is a similar problem at the end to that at the beginning and that those problems lie not in the grammatical structure but in the referential organisation.  In both cases there is a disjunct where a character is concerned.  In the first instance because the elusive Master de Courcey is given thematic prominence we are led to expect, inaccurately, that he is going to be of some importance to the story.  In the second everything that we have been told of the sacristan’s character is suddenly reversed and we seem almost to be reading about a different man.  So, I have been digging about in my files this afternoon to find my copies of the papers of Tom Trabasso, who did a lot of work on the ways in which different parts of stories relate to each other.  It may be that this text is a one off where this type of issue is concerned, but just in case it isn’t I want to be prepared.

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The Short Story Project ~ The Prologue

Image 1First and foremost, I have to say a very real thank you to those who commented on my last post and were so enthusiastic about the idea of the Short Story Project. I have been giving it a lot of thought over the intervening few days and I hope that I will be ready to start by the end of the week.

Many of the comments you made were really useful in helping me to formulate my ideas in greater detail. For instance, my list of possible variables grew exponentially.  I can now see that at some point I shall have to consider such differences as nationality, gender and possibly sexuality of the author, the date when the story was written and the genre of which it is an example, whether it was written in English or if I am reading a translation and the length of the text.

However, initially, I’m not going to take any of those factors into account for two reasons.  First, until I’ve got some specific results there is no point in trying to generalise out.  To start with, I simply need to begin to explore some stories and gradually build up a data set.  I can’t begin to look for patterns until I have enough material for patterns to become apparent.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have to see whether or not the method of analysis I use for complete stories will prove equally as effective a tool when applied to fragments of stories.  There can’t be anything instinctive about this. My results have to be replicable by anyone else carrying out the same process.  I have to be able to cite grammatical evidence for my decisions.  In one sense, then, it doesn’t matter where I start because if my methodology isn’t generally applicable it isn’t going to be any use.

So, following up Ian’s advice about checking out the various Penguin and Oxford anthologies I’ve ordered a copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A S Byatt on the grounds that at least I can trust her to have selected stories that will be worth reading.  In fact, looking at the Table of Content I can see that this will give me works from a wide range of dates and, eventually, from authors of both genders, but as I say, initially that isn’t going to be important.  As soon as that arrives I can get down to work.

In the meantime, I am trying to master the art of keeping a spreadsheet on my computer.  If you should see any smoke rising into the skies from the general direction of the English West Midlands then you will know what it is!

What Do We Mean By ‘Story’?

imagesRecently, over on Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove reviewed a short story collection by Tom Barbash.  As usual, I commented on my inability to engage with the short story form, even though I frequently used to include examples in my teaching.  In reply, Litlove asked me whether I enjoyed fairy tales, because were they not a form of short story, and I had to admit that I did, if only because I have frequently used them as material for analysis in my research work on narrative organisation.  However, something must have made me uneasy about this, something that then lodged in the back of my mind and which my few remaining little grey cells have been worritting away at ever since, until my concerns finally coalesced while I was out walking this morning.  I enjoy and have worked with fairy tales because they really are short stories whereas so many texts that are called short stories actually are not.

The fairy tale is, quite simply, a story that is short.  But, short or no, for the most part, it is a complete story.  To put it bluntly (although I would slaughter any student who chose to be quite so blunt) it has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.  Or, to be a little more precise, it follows the canonical pattern of exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and conclusion.

Let’s take as an example that well known short story, The Three Little Pigs. The exposition introduces us to the main characters and the salient facts about their current life style (i.e like so many grown up sons and daughters they are still living at home with their mother).  But, these pigs are about to strike out for independence and so at inciting moment they all go out into the world to build their own individual houses.  Yea for the pigs!

Now, at this point the story could go off in all sorts of different directions.  It could turn out to be a tale of sibling rivalry as each of the pigs tries to outdo the other two in terms of building the biggest and best house.  It could have a developmental aspect to it as, having built their new homes, the pigs then decide to launch out into the business world and give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’.  What this plot line needs is an igniting moment to point readers in the right direction so that they can find their way safely through the fairy tale forest to the end of the story.  And so, along comes Mr Wolf and in the space of a huff and a puff our tale becomes one of survival against the evils of the outside world.

So, through the development section we watch as pig after pig finds his house destroyed by the evil machinations of Mr Big Bad.  (Please, no comments about the way in which the figure of the wolf is wickedly maligned and that really they are all nice, kind animals who live a quiet family life and wouldn’t so much as hurt a fly.  This one isn’t after flies.  He’s after roast pig and he’s the baddie.  OK?)  Finally, however, the pattern is broken and at climax pig number three, bravely sheltering her (check out the gender correct version in the Storychest reading scheme) two brothers manages to build a house that defeats the evil intentions of the wicked wolf and we are left to follow the dénouement with bated breath as the villain of the piece tries to climb down the chimney only to fall head first into the pot and become the chief ingredient in the siblings’ housewarming party.  As I said before – Yea for the pigs!

And those three intrepid house builders then get the reward that they deserve because the conclusion of the story, the point at which we move out of the event line and let the protagonists sink back into a settled and tranquil life, is the one that we all know so well – And they all lived happily ever after.  The Three Little Pigs may be short but it is a fully structured story.

However, my suspicion is (and it can be no more than a suspicion because I haven’t done the necessary research) that most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort.  Rather they are parts of stories and we, as readers, are left to construct the elements that are missing.  Not that I’m suggesting that there’s anything wrong or indeed unusual about that.  I’ve done a lot of work with children on single frame cartoons which normally offer you either the climax or the dénouement of the story and you only understand what is funny or pointed about them because you are able to reconstruct the rest of the narrative from prior knowledge either of a specific situation or a well rehearsed trope.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing a political cartoon in the daily press and being completely unable to interpret it because we haven’t been following the particular news item to which it is related.

Perhaps this points to one reason that so many of us have a problem with the short story as a form; it demands so much more of us as readers than does the full-blown narrative.  It can also be much more tantalising, especially if the dénouement and/or conclusion is missing.  Some of us like our stories nicely rounded off.  We may not demand the happy ever after, but we do like to know what happened in the end.

Of course, this is the point at which I should analyse half a dozen so called short stories just to show that they are not – stories, that is.  But, as I’ve said, I’m not in a position to do that – yet.  Because if there is one thing that might galvanise me into action and finally get me reading short stories then it is the possibility of being able to analyse them to see what actually is happening in an organisational sense.  Sad person that I am, I love grammatical analysis at whatever the level of hierarchy might be appropriate.

So, I am announcing The Short Story Project, in which I undertake to read one short story a week and do my best to analyse its narrative structure in order to see if my theory holds water.  The first thing I need to do is get hold of a good anthology because single authored collections are not going to work for this.  I need a range of stories by different writers and if possible from different nationalities and various time periods. I can go and have a good mooch round the library and local bookshops but if any of you have suggestions then they would be most welcome.  As the results, whatever they might be, become apparent I can report back on them here.  If I can keep it going for a year then I should have enough material to offer at least some tentative conclusions and maybe eventually even come up with enough evidence to support a move to rename the genre altogether!