Monday, 25 June 2012

Sublimity is in the Details

Since reading Tessa Hadley's judge's comments in the current issue of Mslexia magazine (Issue 54, Jun/Jul/Aug 2012), I've been thinking more about detail. When reading the short stories submitted for Mslexia's annual short story competition, Hadley looks for 'those giveaway details which are unexpected and illuminating and true.' Truth being, in this case, emotional truth: something that resonates as part of our shared human experience.

Hadley points out that these details are the opposite of clichés and writers have to work hard to avoid the tendency of language to revert to cliché. I'm guilty of this - sometimes I'll purposely write a cliché in a draft and make a note to change it to something different, better and unique, but sometimes clichés slip through when I haven't paid attention to detail. Hadley's comments have served as a useful reminder that beautiful, accurate and enlightening details are an essential ingredient of good short stories. Like poetry, short stories have to project strong, vivid images the reader can absorb in a (relavtively) short time and which later echo in the reader's mind.

The more I think about it, the more I realise the truth of these observations. The most haunting short stories I've read all have at least one striking image. Often, they have several striking images of which or two are sublime. The woman's hypocritical accusations of unfairness at the end of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. The ludicrous, identical hats in All That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor. The single, grey hair on the pillow in A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner.

Carson McCullers, in The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing, which is collected in The Mortgaged Heart, says 'Always details provoke more ideas than any generality can furnish.' I love her use of the word 'provoke' - short stories should be provoking, they should make readers look at life and humanity from a different perspective and discover something about their own lives.

McCullers also says 'Good prose should be fused with the light of poetry.' This can be interpreted in many ways, but for now I shall interpret it thus: stories, especially short stories, should be revealing and thought provoking, but should wear these properties with a lightness. A key way of achieving this is through the judicious use of illuminating details.

I find this very inspiring and intimidating. Especially as I work on the drafts of the short stories which will comprise my dissertation... Sublimity may lie in the details, but I'm wary that madness might lie in the work of creating these details!


  1. Thank you, Hayley, for this important and beautifully expressed post.
    When I look at my rejected stories, I often feel there'e some magic missing. They don't leave enough of am impression on the reader's mind. And when I look at the stories that have enjoyed some success, the magical element is there. And so often it's in the detail. The detail makes them sing out, lifts the characters from the page and paints a more vivid picture. It doesn't have to be anything spectacular. It just has to work.
    The writers you mention are masters of the poignant detail. When I write, I try to ignore the first ideas that spring to mind when I'm shading in the details. Those are the ones that often might be clichés. If I let my mind wander past the edges of normal experience, a bizarre thought enters my head and I will attempt to use it. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it's very satisfying.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Joanna. It's mush easier said tham done, isn't it? But pushing past cliches is worth the effort!