I am fascinated by how novelists talk about short stories, and the people who write them, and vice versa. It’s nice that there’s so much reverence for the people doing what they are not, but I am beginning to find the gestures toward honoring strange and other-ing.
Take this Guardian interview with Kazuo Ishiguro. The great Ishiguro recently wrote his first collection of stories, Nocturnes, and he seems very unsure of where to place his book and his experience with it.
After five novels, Nocturnes is Ishiguro’s first collection of short stories. Although linked by the pathos of their nostalgic aesthetic, they read as five discrete short stories, but he seems uncomfortable about describing them as such, referring to Nocturnes instead as a “story book”.
“Well I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to call it,” he admits. “I’ve been resisting calling it a collection of short stories because sometimes novelists do publish collections of short stories, and they’re basically a rag bag of stories they’ve had sitting around for the last 30 years. Whereas this book I actually sat down and wrote from start to finish.
“I don’t know what proper short story writers would think of this, but I’ve gone about this in the way a novelist would. I don’t claim to be a short story writer, and I have no idea if I’m doing it properly; I’m just writing this almost like a novelist. It sounds very pretentious, but you know some music forms, like sonatas, you get five what seem like totally separate pieces of music but they go together.”
So it definitely isn’t a novel? “No, it isn’t a novel. I didn’t want the stories to interweave as they would in a novel. So yes, they’re short stories. But I’ve always said I don’t want them published separately, I don’t want them split up. I think that’s a bit unreasonable of me because they would probably work alone, but I personally always thought of them as a single book. It’s just a fictional book that happens to be divided into these five movements.” He pauses for a moment to reconsider, and smiles apologetically. “I don’t like these musical analogies, because it sounds wildly pretentious. Maybe it’s better to say it’s more like an album, and you don’t sometimes want a track released as a single.”
I wonder if some of his semantic unease stems from a worry about the popular perception of short stories as not quite “proper” literature.
“Well it’s certainly a much smaller market, there’s no doubt about it. I did ask people beforehand – because I was curious, I wanted to know, in a slightly mercenary way. I said what is the short story market compared to the novel market? And in America I was told it’s between a third to a half of what I would sell as a novelist. Here in this country more like a quarter.” And that didn’t put him off? “Well no, because I’ve always wanted to have a short story collection.”
Maybe Ishiguro is more concerned with how this particular book is received or understood. But why isn’t he a “proper short story writer?” He’s a proper writer, and he’s written short stories. Is it a respect issue? Is he just being polite by acknowledging that he’s strayed into new territory, one long populated by a different group of people? Do mean, proper short story writers make him feel like he’s stepping on their toes?
Writers say this stuff all the time, but it hasn’t struck me as strange until recently. Maybe it’s beginning to feel redundant, and more like an insincere gesture. People write both novels and short stories. People write both and then some. People write just one thing. I think it’s great to acknowledge the people who have more experience in the genre, but I don’t think you need to take away from your accomplishments at the same time because when you come down to it, everyone’s trying to do the same thing, and generally respects the hell out of everyone they are supposed to.