Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro does short stories

Well, he sort of does short stories. His new book, Nocturnes, is a collection of five such "things". Ishiguru doesn't seem wholeheartedly comfortable with the idea that he has actually written a short story collection! He said to the Guardian's Decca Aitkinhead on Monday:

"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.

Yes, true, from the author interviews on the Short Review, only a few authors seem to have done it this way, having a collection in mind and writing it.
"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."
I have added the Bold - proper short story writers? I found this fascinating. He's written five short stories, yet still doesn't claim to be a short story writer. He seems to see himself as a novelist stumbling into foreign territory. But surely, the definition of a short story writer is just... someone who writes short stories. Or is it not? Aitkenhead tries to clarify:

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."

Food for thought - when is a set of short stories not a short story collection? Is Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kittredge, recent winner of the Pullitzer for Fiction, a short story collection or a novel-in-stories, and what exactly is a novel-in-stories but a short story collection?

For me, the criteria is this: could you read just one and be satisfied, not have that bemused feeling when you turn the page and discover the story has ended? Does each story stand alone? Of course, this throws up the next dilemma: if they don't stand alone then are they, actually, chapters? Perhaps not the orthodox definition of chapters, but I for one, as I struggle with the idea of a Longer Thing that seems not to be a traditional novel yet is not a short story collection, like the idea of the semi-stand-alone-chapter-entity. A catchier name is needed, yes, but perhaps there should be a new definition. Not to divide; just to clarify. So that Ishiguru doesn't have to explain and defend.

In the meantime, I say we claim him. When asked about the short story market, he told Aitkenhead:
"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."
"I've always wanted to have a short story collection". Well said, Mr Ishiguru. Now you do. Read the full interview.


annie clarkson said...

wonderful, I love this, he is such an interesting writer, I really want to read this book. lots of interesting thoughts...

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

I only recently read my first Kazuo Ishiguro book and quickly got another- Remains of the Day, which moved at the pace of paint drying but I loved it! So- I can't wait to get ahold of this one.

I do think he is overthinking this a bit (a lot). These artificial boxes don't help the cause.

I was a bit shocked that UK sells less short story collection than USA. The British seem to love short stories. That whole bit was disappointing.

Tania Hershman said...

Annie, he is, isn't he? Lots of food for thought in this article, the bit about how he has to pretend with his old friend that he isn't really a phenomenally successful writer was so fascinating, and fairly disturbing!

Lauri, his novel about cloning is excellent. His writing is just wonderful. But yes, totally overthinking! Having been a journalist myself I know that articles might not quite be an accurate depiction of what went on, but even so, he should be out and proud as a short story writer and novelist!

That stat about the UK market didn't surprise me, the Americans are far more into short stories, there is an incredible inbuilt bias against them amongst mainstream UK publishers, for some reason. Almost a brick wall.

nmj said...

I've never been able to get into Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction, though I know he is a great writer, if that makes sense. Been dipping into his running/writing memoir for a while now, it is gentle & flowing...Someone once suggested that short stories are more popular in USA cos Americans tend to be so busy, every minute having to be filled with an activity, short stories are easily fitted in! This is a great generalisation but maybe a grain of truth in it?

Tania Hershman said...

I think you've confused Ishiguru with Murakami! Easily done... Kazuo Ishiguru wrote Remains of the Day, and the Unconsoled, he lives in England. Quite realist fiction. Murakami's books and stories are much more surreal!

Ah yes, short stories for busy lives! I think that could be true...

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

Tania- the cloning book is the one I read first- fantastic! He must make more interesting titles though- I cn never keep them in my head. (Or is that me?)

nmj said...

Lordy, of course I have confused them, well & truly! I blame my cough, I am not sleeping well just now ... and I didn't read the whole interview, that'll teach me! This explains my confusion within confusion, since Murakami has written short stories before and I didn't understand why this was his first collection! But I couldn't read Remains of the Day or the Unconsoled either, started both...