It’s Friday afternoon and normally I’d be heading to a pub, but tonight I’m going to Waterstones in Piccadilly for the second day of the London Short Story Festival.
As I enter the book-bundled store, I’m greeted by a couple of the LSSF volunteers who direct me to the first floor. Although I’m a little late and the room is near-capacity, I’m lucky enough to grab a chair close to the front.
Before us sit Stuart Evers, Nikesh Shukla, Jarred McGinnis, and Salena Godden. They are here to discuss humour in short stories. McGinnis, who is chairing the talk, asks whether they should simply tell jokes for the next hour. Shukla is keen on the idea, but it’s not to be; this is, after all, a festival for short stories.
Stuart Evers, Nikesh Shukla, Jarred McGinnis (Left to Right)
Following a brief introduction from Spread the Word Director Sue Lawther, Jarred McGinnis takes charge.
The interesting thing about humour, he tells us, is that it can be used in a variety of ways. ‘You’ll notice,’ he says, ‘that the writers here will all approach writing and humour from different angles.’ With this, he passes the buck to Godden who is asked to read first.
Salena Godden is a tall, lively, and confident writer who strides to the lectern with an encompassing, slightly roguish smile. It’s evident that she’s well accustomed to performance.
‘The Good Cock,’ she booms into the microphone. Someone to my far left cheers. It’s a known short story to a few, it would seem.
‘The Good Cock,’ repeats Godden and there is a little titter; the audience is largely female and tending towards later middle age. I can see a few of them looking puzzled. Does she mean ‘cockerel’, perhaps?
No, Godden is not talking about birds. This is the title of her short story which has her singing, gesturing, and growling into the microphone. The good cock, we are told, is hard and long and it is soon being tended to with great diligence by a girl in the back of a car. Aside from a few puzzled faces, the room is soon filled with frequent, jubilant guffawing. Godden is hilarious, letting each syllable of her story spring into life, and occasionally providing parenthetical comments that are funnier still.
‘Don’t do that, or you’ll make me come,’ she growls into the microphone in a character voice that’s deeper and huskier than most men could manage. Laughter follows. ‘Hmmmm,’ says Godden, looking up, eyes pensive, ‘that sounds a bit too like Darth Vader…’ If you had never imagined Darth Vader being given a blow job before, you have now.
The story ends with a sense of sad detachment and loneliness, by which time not a single face in the room remains unanimated.
Next up is Nikesh Shukla who wears a colourful shirt and gives an even more colourful performance. He reads a story that has been written with writers in mind. As most of the people in the room are exactly that, it’s the perfect short story for this evening. The narrator, or protagonist of Shukla’s story has (for want of a better phrase) ‘got beef’ with the writing of his second novel.
‘I spent the last thirty years writing my first novel and now I’m expected to write another one? All I want to do is eat Kit-Kats for every meal.’
Where Godden’s humour was bold and brash, this is more in the vein of the outraged rant; it’s opinionated, incredulous, and hyperbolic.
‘What’s the deal with second novels?’ and ‘What’s the deal with prologues?’ The narration builds tone and theme through repetition, until even the slightest mention of a Kit-Kat ‘without any wafer in the middle’ is enough to cause a peal of laughter among the listeners. It’s a clever, energetic short story that clearly connected with almost everyone in the room.
Our third act was by Stuart Evers whom I had not had the pleasure of knowing before. What a discovery.
He gives a reading that is soft, slow, and deliberate. The language is rich and considered, and despite the humour, the narrative seeps with a sense of the sinister that spirals ever up. The short story (‘Live from the Palladium’) is centred upon a boy called Clive and his relationship with his mother. This bond is built on jokes and joking around, and yet there is a darkness that permeates each sentence and pierces every moment of humour. I’ll say no more than this, but urge writers and readers to seek out this subtle short story.
Once we’ve heard the three readings, McGinnis asks whether there’s a similarity between the joke and the short story form, referring to that sense of surprise, or twist that so many (perhaps too many) short stories employ.
‘Certainly the mechanics work well together,’ says Shukla, ‘and there’s definitely a basic structure in classic comedy – I could ruin ninety per cent of sitcoms for you… But anyway, what I love about the best short stories is that they can tell you everything about someone’s life as succinctly as it is possible…’
‘And do you think joke-telling is fundamental to short stories, to life?’ asks McGinnis.
‘I like the way people interact using humour,’ says Evers, ‘I’m fascinated by the idea of people who joke as a way of evasion – they use routines and jokes – these comedic idiosyncrasies to communicate; it’s really interesting when people have known each other for a long time, know each other well, and use these private jokes between themselves, and yet they might not even laugh or smile at them.’
‘Humour used as a private language…’ says McGinnins, ‘What’s your view on this Selena?’
‘I tend to use humour in a much more confrontational way. And I use sex when I want to talk about something particularly heavy-’
‘To draw out the sadness… it’s not just an act of intimacy then?’
‘Exactly.’ replies Godden, ‘If you make people laugh then you make people come in, and you can get to know them and then you can make them do other things. Like cry. You draw them in – Shakespeare was always doing it. We use humour to say important things.’
‘You bring such a performative element to your humour…’ leads McGinnis, still directing his speech to Godden.
‘I’ve performed this one a lot,’ she admits.
‘And, Nikesh, is there a significant difference between page and stage?’
‘Well,’ begins Shukla, ‘this piece of mine isn’t really formally typed up on a word document like a normal short story… it is more of a performance. When read aloud, you can leave the audience with more than just the text. In the case of this story, I really only perform it when I know there are a lot of other writers around, because they know where I’m coming from with this, because the narrator’s anxiety is there at every stage of writing.’
‘Is there something slightly false… are there faux elements to being funny, to humorous stories?’
‘I’m not sure about faux. If you take someone like Lorrie Moore – she made her entire life out of short stories that are funny, using basic joke material and I suppose there’s a trick element in that,’ says Stuart Evers. ‘But the point is that humour is an integral part of life; without humour, you don’t have life… If there’s no humour, you’re pushing away from recorded existence. There are very few books without humour that are also very good – 1984, perhaps, but this can’t have humour because if it did the whole thing would become ridiculous, like some kind of Jeeves and Worcester.
‘It’s also important to remember that humour is a great weapon against oppressive regimes; satire is always the first thing to be banned in dictatorial states.
‘As for jokes, which are a specific form of humour, they’ve been pretty much the same throughout history. Stoppard says jokes take the form of stating one thing and later on stating or revealing the complete opposite. It’s that or someone – a type – saying something completely unexpected… for example an old person telling a cock joke.’’
‘I’m interested in picking up on this idea of dark humour…’ begins McGinnins.
‘Black humour…,’ says Shukla, ‘humour allows for a bigger emotional hit. If you can make someone laugh, you can then punch them in the stomach…’
‘Selena? Your short story ends rather sadly, darkly. The two characters used, like tools…?’
‘Yes… dehumanized… sorry, I was just recalling this time a few years ago when I was taking a creative writing class. There was this lovely, very sweet, and mature fourteen year old, and I just remember her coming up to me and saying how much she loved ‘The Good Cock’. I was so shocked that this sweet girl had read it – and enjoyed it so much – that I garbled about how it was absolutely fine because I married him – the Story’s semi-autobiographical – as if that makes the whole story okay. And the next thing I realized was that I had essentially implied it was okay to shag someone in the back of car, in the middle of a carpark, so long as you then married them.’
‘Or,’ adds Shukla, ‘you’re suggesting that if you fuck someone in a car park you will end up marrying them…’
‘I suppose I did, well, he’s my fiancé…’ says Godden, smiling.
‘And do your family still make eye-contact with you!’ asks McGinnis, laughing.
‘Well, you’ve got to laugh at things like that… things which retrospectively might not have been as fun or funny at the time,’ replies Godden.
‘You need to make jokes about bad experiences?’ asks McGinnis.
‘I have always taken bad experiences and made them funny, yes. I’m not saying that that experience was bad, by the way. Anyway, a joke is a barrier; jokes are armour,’ responds Godden.
‘That’s true,’ says Evers, entering the fray, ‘and I think what we’re identifying here is that there are, as you mentioned at the beginning, types of humour. But that doesn’t stop something being funny. There’s a great Will Self collection which essentially uses four kinds of device, yet even knowing this and recognising it, they’re still incredibly funny.
‘That doesn’t mean all these device theories are correct. There’s an interesting saying actually,’ he continues, ‘that tragedy plus time equals comedy. But this is simply not the case when you consider how quickly jokes come up after something horrible happens.’
‘Gallows humour,’ nods Shukla.
‘Yes, I remember during 9/11,’ says Godden, ‘I was there when it happened. Just a few days after all the bars were packed; it was like people needed to get out. And the jokes… the jokes were good, and everyone would laugh, because you’re scared, because what else can you do? Laughing is a release. It’s a fear response.’
‘They say that when chimpanzees are smiling, they’re actually displaying fear, and showing their teeth is a warning signal…’ adds McGinnis.
The last question is about inspiration and where their humour and their jokes come from, and how they test them. Shukla samples out his new material on Twitter (@nikeshshukla) where ‘I write all my half-baked jokes.’ However if one of them is particularly popular, he knows it’s a keeper. ‘The other day,’ he says, I had a joke that had seventy-eight interactions and I was like, well that’s going in to the third novel.’
Evers, meanwhile, has a very different approach, ‘I don’t do that at all,’ he tells us. ‘If I write jokes down, then I feel they’re too safe… I need to let them go about in my mind; I know they’ll come back to me when they need to happen, when they’re ready. A bit like short stories.’
With this, Sue Lawther returns to make her thanks and we too give a resounding applause. It’s been an excellent, intriguing, unexpected start to the day.
The final event was entitled ’10 Years of the National BBC Short Story Award’ and featured writers D. W. Wilson, Joe Dunthorne, Krys Lee, the radio producer Liz Allard, and was chaired by Claire Shanahan.
We were first given readings by the three writers. It may seem disingenuous, but I’m disinclined to provide comment on the stories, other than to say they were all genuinely superb. These are writers who should be read.
Before reading her story, Lee provided a charming introduction that may resonate with many writers:
‘Writing this story involved a lot of not knowing. It was one of those times when you think you know where it’s going, but then realize you don’t. Then you have to find your way and you learn about your story – you create a map as you go along your journey – and you learn about yourself, too.’
Lee is sprightly and joyful, and she talks with a natural lyricism, grace and depth that reminds me of Ben Okri.
Claire Shanahan asks a simple, yet useful question:
‘What should budding writers be doing?’
Wilson, who watches the crown through glasses and sits beneath a baseball cap, gives an answer he must repeat often, but one that is no less relevant for it: ‘Read widely and deeply,’ he says with a soothing, steady Canadian accent. ‘Write constantly. Persistence beats resistance.’
Dunthorne, tall, blonde-haired, sitting comfortably in his chair: ‘Expect failure, build it into your mindset.’
Wilson give the smallest of smiles and contributes to this: ‘I often tell my students that writing is the only thing they’ll do that will land them with more rejections than dating.’
There is laughter and then Lee leans forward, tilts her head, and then says that ‘a writing routine can help you through the difficult days.’ She pauses, considering her next words, ‘I also think that it’s important to finish a story, but also to allow it to reach its potential. William Trevor takes between five and ten years to finish a story… Short stories ripen like wine over time… we should let them grow.’
‘Be persistent and keep sending things in,’ adds Allard.
The final two questions focus on what the panel look for in a short story and how they feel when they come across a great one.
‘A really great story involves something that you wouldn’t have expected, where the story is taken in a completely different direction,’ says Dunthorne.
‘But this can be anywhere and anything,’ Lee is quick to temper, ‘a short story can be about something incredibly banal, but it can still be surprising – there’s some great stories by Denis Johnson which focus on the dullest of things, but are still really great. I think also that you can identify a great story from its echo, that’s a good sign.’
‘I guess you encounter a grandiosity – a scope that is far bigger than the number of pages or the word count. I often use the example of a sky being reflected in a puddle,’ provides Wilson. Later on in the discussion he makes an excellent analogy between the novel and the short story: ‘It’s like making a house versus a cupboard. Sure, you use similar tools, but the aim and the results are completely different. I don’t see why people think there’s this tension there, they are two distinct forms, each of which require very different skills, even if the basic materials are the same.’
Joe Dunthorne (left)and D. W. Wilson (right) book-signing
Returning to the topic of what to look out for in short stories, or what to aim towards when writing a short story, Allard gives what might be thought of as understandable advice from a judge and critic: ‘When I’m judging a short story competition and I get to a fantastic story,’ says Allard, ‘I feel a tremendous sense of relief, this is it I think. It’s almost an ineffable feeling… of joy and relief.’
Lee concludes the event with charming excitement, seemingly recalling moments of discovery as she speaks, ‘When I read a great short story, I feel a huge sense of gratitude. I love that person – even if they’re dead, I love them!’
Love and the short story was a fitting way to end the day and it is an equally fitting way to end this article. Tomorrow brings more events, more speakers, and more short stories.
After Day Two, the London Short Story Festival has continued to be engaging, entertaining, and slick.