There is something about Charleston, former home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, that makes it a haven for the creative imagination. Perhaps it is the beautiful garden surrounding the house, or the gorgeous paintings that adorn the walls. Most likely, though, it is the tradition of fervent activity of great minds and thoughts that have gathered here, allowing it to continue to be a place for thoughts to come alive and intriguing discussions to take place.
September 22nd-25th saw ‘Small Wonder’ come to Charleston, a festival devoted to the celebration of short stories , previously described by William Trevor as ‘the best literary festival I have ever attended.’ Quirky, thought provoking and fun, ‘Small Wonder’ delivered a literary line up that sparkled, all in the intimate atmosphere of the Charleston barn. The short story as a form is idiosyncratic, malleable and more prominent than one may first believe. Numerous successful films originated from this breathless gasp of small stories that last less than a hundred pages: ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ ,’ The Birds’, ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’, ‘Apocalypse Now’. Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Lawrence, amongst hundreds more of our greatest writers, were all purveyors of the short story. Inevitably, the explorations and discussions that occurred over the four days were illuminating and expansive.
Something Was There’ commemorated the eponymous first Asham Anthology published by Virago and featured Sarah Waters, Kate Clanchy and Naomi Alderman discussing this year’s gothic theme (the title is a line from Waters ghostly novel ‘The Little Stranger’). Waters read Graham Greene’s story, ‘A Little Place Off the Edgware Road’, bringing to the fore ideas about narrators that we cannot trust and the importance a seemingly unbalanced inner psychology can play. Clanchy and Alderman read their own stories from the anthology, both demonstrating the highly polarised results that can occur from such a small catalyst. Clanchy’s ‘The Real Story’ was a droll exploration of what it might have been like for a modern day literary agent to pursue Emily Bronte’s manuscript, whilst Alderman’s ‘Car’ used second person narration to frightening effect, telling the tale of a SatNav that has a life of its own. Bearing in mind Waters novel – set in the 1950s – was used a starting point, perhaps the most interesting observation was the fact that technology was such a prevalent theme in the stories from the anthology. Is our fear of technology that talks back now greater than that of a good old fashioned ghost story? In discussion, Clanchy talked of the necessity to put one’s faith in the uncanny, whilst Alderman summed up what makes the perfect scary story – the power of suggestion.
‘New Ways with Words’ got even closer to the short story itself as Joe Dunthorne, Geoff Dyer and Tessa Hadley each read their own, and discussed the form in detail with Radio 4 present Di Speirs, ahead of the announcement of the winner of the BBC National Short Story Awards (DW Wilson beat Jon McGregor and MJ Hyland to the prize). Geoff Dyer’s reading of ‘White Sands’ brought the comedy of the tale to the fore, in what otherwise was a tense observational story of a rather suspicious hitchhiker. Hadley’s ‘Post Production’, a tale of loss, matched its subject with sparse language, revealing emotional depth as much in what was not said as what was. Dunthorne’s ‘Critical Responses to my Last Relationship’ featured a young music journalist trying to make a beautiful female band member’s affection for him correlate with the praise of his reviews. All three readings were in turn funny, tense and stirring, but always captivating. Dunthorne, stated that, much like poetry, there is a feeling that short story can be made perfect, whereas there has to be an acceptance that in writing a novel some sentences will not work. Hadley recommended that writers starting out should write short stories as one is not held to account in the same way as a novel. She went on to say there is an irresponsible feel about writing short – something can be thrown down and not necessarily followed through. As well as recognising that short stories lend themselves well to auditory performance, Dyer stated that he was reluctant to put the short story on a plinth – he suggested that the nature of something is determined by a reader’s expectations.
Where else could you be amongst a farm yard, a striking literary heritage, and a picturesque garden whilst discussing books? ‘Small Wonder’ was a perfect weekend for all those with creative inclinations, and Charleston an idyllic setting, but there is something about its off the beaten track feel that makes it special – if Charleston were to become overrun with visitors, it would surely be met with a feeling that Joe Dunthorne described in his story – ‘the familiar ache of a band I love getting popular’.