At the London Short Story Festival: humour, lemon juice and wishing I was Graham Norton

LSSF shoppingI am a short, grey-bearded, gay-man of a certain age. The resemblance with Graham Norton stops there, although the ability to pull a lever and fire a chair’s occupant over their own head and into the basement would, I admit, be cool.

I’ll confess that the urge kicked in occasionally at #LSSF (on Twitter at @lssfest), triggered by occasional bursts of what sometimes felt like a lazy game of buzzword bingo: curating, giving voice to, ‘as I was saying to my therapist’, ‘this was really a true story’. In an arena where originality and insight are presumably to be cherished, some still traipsed into the trap of trooping the tropes. Piccadilly Waterstones on a humid June day is in danger of being soporific enough. Adverts disguised as seminars can lose their glamour too. (Plaudits to Ambit for sidestepping that little elephant trap.) There was also a moment where one panel member suggested that writers should consider the reader as if this were some kind of blinding revelation, and several hands made scurried to make heavily underlined notes to that effect in Moleskine notebooks. One wondered who those hands had previously imagined themselves to be writing for.

But, before this sounds snarky, it was a great celebration of the short story, that troubled offspring of the literary family. Still booming and still unsellable, apparently. Waterstones’ tills seemed to disagree, but I haven’t seen the sales tally – maybe I’m wrong. (I continue to wonder if our magpie-like response to all things digital – blogging our own work, taking unpaid appearances in online magazines – is the right response, and if we’re not walking into the same undermining of the concept of rewarding the creator as the music industry has done, but Jaron Lanier makes the argument better than me – read him.)

And there were two gems that deserve a plug to even the tiny audience of this blog. The first was Stuart Evers on Twitter contribution to the Q&A element of a session on humour in writing, making the essential point that humour makes us human. His story, Live from the Palladium, from which he read an extract (Stuart Evers – Your Father Sends His Love), made some excellent observations about the nature and role of comedy too, while never forgetting to carry on telling its story. If you’re going to imitate life, keep the gags in. Remember that humour is one of the flavours – the seasoning, if you will. Otherwise it’s stand-up, and the only judging criteria then are a) whether or not we’re laughing, nervously or otherwise, and b) the old ‘laughing at or with?’ dilemma.

The main problem with knob gags, for example – to cite a strand of humour we were also treated to – is that they’re usually not big enough (fnar): around their bloated heads, we can still hear the sad knob who is cracking them (not an affliction confined to men either: maybe we’ve finally cracked one little aspect of penis envy).

The proof of Stuart Evers’ argument came (stop it), however, in a totally different session. DW (Dave) Wilson read us Mountains under the Sea (DW Wilson – Mountains Under the Sea), a story with more audience laughter than the others combined. Yet the story is about grief, the difficulties of parenthood and of attempting human communication in a challenging emotional landscape – the impossibility of protecting someone else from the emotional pitfalls of life, even though you can’t stop yourself from trying.

Humour here was not the main ingredient, the lamb shank for the reader to gnaw on. It was the twist of lemon, the pinch of sea salt, the handful of roughly torn coriander that heightened the existing flavours, brought the emotional contrasts to life, made the individual notes sing as a chord.

(He also illustrated an aspect of voice in his comments to the discussion in his session: how people speak and sound is an integral element of a story’s sense of location – something underlined by his own reading, where an undeniable British Columbian accent brought to life not just the narrating character but the sense of geographic dislocation. Another reading voice here would have been about as appropriate as hiring the Queen to be a barmaid in The Archers.)

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