Bristol Prize

Short Stories, Flannery O’Connor, and Alton Towers

October 30, 2014   Joe Melia

Photo: Barbara EvripidouOne of the highlights of our recent awards ceremony was the wonderful speech our special guest, Patricia Ferguson, made. We’re thrilled that Patricia has given us permission to post the speech on here.


“A few years ago I took several teenagers to Alton Towers. It wasn’t my idea. I did holding the coats while the boys queued to go on something called Oblivion. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with Oblivion? It looked like a sort of sofa on a long climbing railway, and it very slowly went all the way up the rail, and then turned, and stopped at the dizzyingly high summit, before a vertical drop into a what looked like a bottomless black hole; and for a long moment before it fell the sofa-thing, the occupants well strapped-in, tipped forward slightly, suspending them right over the drop, over the smoking pit, waiting. That was usually when they began screaming.

Reading short stories can be a bit like that.

When you read a novel, no matter how immersive, you have to keep stopping. You have to turn off that screen and open the work one. You have to get off the train, or chop the onions, or turn the light off and go to sleep. You may not want to put the book down, but you must, and so your own life interrupts it.

But a short story is so different. You pick up a short story, you can nearly always read it all the way through without stopping. Whatever the author intended hits you just as it was meant to. There’s no dilution of bits of your own life getting in the way. This is why reading a short story can be so very intense an experience. The author has taken out everything that can possibly be taken out, and left you only what is absolutely essential, and if the writing’s what it should be you can’t get off. Like the people strapped into the Oblivion sofa you have to make your way up to the highest point and wait there, helpless, until the author lets you fall.

I have to say this idea came to me when I was recovering from reading A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. You’re just not the a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-and-other-stories-book-coversame after you’ve read A Good Man is Hard to Find. Though at one point you’re almost sure you know what’s going to happen, and you can hardly bear to go on reading, you do. You’re strapped in, by the quality of the writing, by the terror of the ideas.

Stretching this analogy as far as it will go if not further – I like seeing how stretchy an analogy can be – not all short stories are like a ride on Oblivion, and A Good Man is Hard to Find. Of course not. Some short stories are definitely more like the sort of gentle fairground ride I used to like a child, when you choose your favourite colour roundabout horse; the sort of ride you can have whilst still eating candy floss. You still can’t get off though, until the ride is over.

This may be why some people say they don’t really like short stories. They say things like “Oh, you’re just getting into it when it stops.” Or “You have to keep getting used to all these different people…”

I suspect that sometime in their past they have inadvertently queued up for Oblivion, when all they wanted was the gentle roundabout. They’ve been frightened off.

Though it’s not fashionable at the moment, to think that reading can be frightening. We are so desperate for our children to read instead of doing other things we feel are less creative that we have altogether given up the notion that reading might be dangerous, subversive, terrifying. Harmful.

But of course it can be all those things, and all the more so in that reading is entirely personal. And unpredictable: my Oblivion and my roundabout might not be anything like yours. When we read we bring our whole selves to the narrative, past, prejudices, fears, hopes. We read with our selves in a way that we don’t, I feel, watch a film, see someone’s else’s imagery. Our imagery in reading is entirely our own, at once as vague and as vivid as a dream, and private, almost incommunicable.

There’s no one strapped in beside you on that slowly ascending sofa: you’re on your own.

Perhaps all of us here, readers who write, writers who read, we all know the score. We’re hardened thrill-seekers, we like being on our own as the ride starts. We seek out the writers who won’t let us get off. Because essentially – that’s our idea of fun. The theme park of literature.

For me reading fiction is all about pleasure, of many different kinds. And short stories can cover them all. Pleasure in learning about ourselves, and how our lives differ from the lives of others. In visiting the other side of the world, or the street, or the universe. In time-travel, in magic, in desolate visions of reality, in laughter, intensity, and truth.

All we need to do is buy the short stories. Open the book. Click on the right page. Let the author strap us in. And take the dizzying, cosy, glorious, exciting, hilarious, devastating ride.”

© Patricia Ferguson 2014

Patricia Ferguson’s latest novel is Aren’t We Sisters?

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