March 25, 2012, by Matthew Welton
Jon McGregor: A short talk about the short story
Honorary lecturer, Jon McGregor, came into the school on Thursday 22 March 2012 to give a short talk about the short story. This talk was the first in a series he will be giving here. Jon McGregor’s new short story collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, led the Guardian to describe him as ‘the saviour of the short story.’ Both in that book and in this talk gives us something utterly indispensible and utterly un-put-down-able.
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
Jon McGregor begins his talk with a slide showing this notorious six-word story, usually and perhaps mistakenly attributed to Hemingway. The concision of the piece has meant it has sometimes been seen as the greatest piece of short fiction ever written. This doesn’t stop Jon from criticising it severely. One problem, he says, is that it relies on the reader’s fear of the death of a child – what, after all, could be worse? – and, from there, leaves little to the reader’s imagination. On the next slide he shows, McGregor has redrafted the story:
For sale. Wedding-dress. Never worn.
In this version, he argues, the reader can engage more, and has the space to speculate on the range of reasons the dress may not have been used. He shows us another slide with another redraft:
Offered: Wedding-dress. Unworn.
This cuts the original six words to three and again allows more ambiguity and even more reader engagement. Central to McGregor’s argument is his idea that the defining attribute of the short story is that it can be read in a single sitting. It is a view that can even allow us to dispense with the convention of employing things like character or context. You can, McGregor says, do anything in a short story. And the authors whose stories he reads us – Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, Richard Brautigan – are generally writers who avoid the formula David Gates describes as ‘modest deeds of modest people leading up to a modest epiphany.’