Sarah Hall: sex, death and the short story

Sex and death are the most fascinating aspects of life, fiction’s greatest challenge – and the short story is perfectly adapted to explore difficult subjects

The Sex & Death anthology began – as projects of odd passion frequently do – from a pub chat. The pub in question is long forgotten – The Undertaker’s Arms, or The Brewer’s Droop, let’s say. My co-editor, Peter Hobbs, and I were talking about why the short story form is so difficult to master, why, when it’s done properly, it has such vitality and power, and what the best short stories are really about.

I’d recently read an interview with James Salter in which he mentioned that sex and death, as primary themes, were reasons the New Yorker had rejected his, and his fellow writers’, stories. But aren’t they essential human topics, I asked Pete, aren’t they critical to short fiction? They’re also the trickiest to get right, Pete noted, and then rolled out a pithy Alice Munro quote. When asked why so much of her work was about these two subjects, she replied, “Why wouldn’t it be? It’s all that matters.”

Life can indeed be reduced to these two standards, especially around closing time. And, once you’ve invoked the Nobel-winning Munro, author of collections such as Runaway and The Love of a Good Woman, short story projects suddenly seem like serious business. After sobering, and cajoling a handful of writers we knew could handle such strong meat to “agree in principle” to contribute, off we went with our pitch to the publishers.

There’s much woofing about the poor state of the short story in the UK, its economic viability and readers’ preferences for long form, but this wasn’t too hard a sell. Sex and death are the most fascinating and vexing aspects of our lives, fiction’s greatest challenge to get right. And the short story is a literary device peculiarly suited, or perhaps perfectly adapted, to host what often seems to matter most – our comings and goings, what Faulkner called the front and back doors of the world.

But how can this be? It’s a diminutive vessel compared with the magnitude of such existential contents, such forces. How can a small thing be capable of immense holding?

Short stories are strange, almost impossible language systems. They are acts of compression, without seeming to compress. They concentrate, without clotting. They provide a focused view of an expanse, and, in the best examples, the weight of the exterior world, a universe even, can be seen or sensed outside the narrative frame.

On one level, short stories are handy for creating disquiet and excruciation in the reader, so subjects that unsettle us and render us vulnerable – our mortality, our sexual intrigues – are well showcased. The form is very good at unzipping the mind’s fly, so to speak. Brevity is the key: not having to keep up the suspense and the strategy for too long; getting under the skin and leaving an indelible, if sometimes enigmatic, impression on the reader. A window in, rather than the full picture, can often provide the most poignant, inviting and repelling vision. As readers, we do the work of intuiting and interpreting. In doing so, we are analysed.

To delve a little deeper into the psychology, short stories seem especially suited to cognitive dissonance, and management of conflicting attitudes and behaviours. How characters act, and what they say, is often not how they should act or what they should say. Normality and abnormality, rightness and wrongness, often run in tandem. This is not easy for us to metabolise, but short stories aren’t about consolation, explanation or solvency, they don’t tell us all will be well; that’s not their job. To use a classic cognitive dissonance metaphor, they invite us to smoke and also to know that we shouldn’t smoke, because it’s lethal.

Stories such as “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor and “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover are powered by the counterintuitive; both are toe-curling in their unfolding of an everyday uncanny. In the former, the threat of death remakes the meaning and intensity of life; in the latter, it’s impossible to distinguish between what is sexual fantasy and what is real; both propositions are presented identically.

Short stories like these seek sophisticated, adult responses from readers, an assessment of philosophical and social complexity, personality duality, and imperfection, rather than juvenile mental “splitting” (she’s all good, he’s all bad). They perform little narrative experiments on our morality, our sense of propriety and safety; they ask us to consider our realistic whole.

This is not something we’ve mastered. Humans, as advancing, medicalised, prophylactic-donning beings, have become experts at neutralising our temporal states and our urgeful natures, through medication, television and soft pornography. Our conscious animal natures mean we exist somewhere in between what we imagine and what we bodily are. The base unalterables and outcomes – of the march of cancer through the bones, of the rip in the condom – thrill, horrify and disrupt our civilised symmetry more than anything else, fundamentally irreconcilable as they are. Throughout its history, one particular literary form circles around these themes, and nails them.

The best short stories are masterful, not just by virtue of their testing, exclusive format – fewer words and greater significance – but because they deliver vital existential prescriptions. They un-simplify. They let us know we aren’t fully in control, even if we pay the mortgage on time, try not to look at the postman’s apple-ish buttocks, and take our multivitamins. They don’t problematise life’s choreography to make reading sustainably interesting, as novels often do, but remind us that life is inherently problematic. Not because we’re hypochondriacs or idiots, but because our bodies and our minds still vie; we’ve not reconciled that particular war, and perhaps we never will.

The greatest short stories are a tonic for our complacency, our narcissism and our denial, a succinct way to tell the truth about our selves, if truth can ever be told. They don’t simply deal in epiphany, twists or contradiction, and judging the form on such basic apparatus misses the point. Short stories are bafflingly stable literary worlds through which to consider the instability and mutability of creating and ending, of sex and death, of it all. As the killer notes of the grandmother in O’Connor’s tale: “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

• Sex & Death edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs is published by Faber on 1 September. To order a copy for £15.57 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Sarah Hall

The GuardianTramp

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