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The Complete Short Stories – excerpts from his preface

W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

(Excerpts from his preface to THE COMLETE SHORT STORIES)

I have a natural predilection for complete­ness, so that even in the little space at my disposal I wanted my story to have a certain structure. I do not care for the shape­less story. To my mind it is not enough when the writer gives you the plain facts seen through his own eyes (which means of course that they are not plain facts, but facts coloured by his own idiosyncrasy); I think he should impose a pattern on them. Naturally these stories are anecdotes. If stories are interesting and well told they are none the worse for that. The anecdote is the basis of fiction. The restlessness of writers forces upon fiction from time to time forms that are foreign to it, but when it has been oppressed for a period by obscurity, propaganda or affectation, it reverts, and returns inevitably to the proper function of fiction, which is to tell an interesting story…

I have nothing to add to that. I have written now nearly a hundred stories and one thing I have discovered is that whether you hit upon a story or not, whether it comes off or not, is very much a matter of luck. Stories are lying about at every street corner, but the writer may not be there at the moment they are waiting to be picked up or he may be looking at a shop window and pass them un­noticed. He may write them before he has seen all there is to see in them or he may turn them over in his mind so long that they have lost their freshness. He may not have seen them from the exact standpoint at which they can be written to their best ad­vantage. It is a rare and happy event when he conceives the idea of a story, writes it at the precise moment when it is ripe, and treats it in such a way as to get out of it all that it implicitly contains. Then it will be within its limitations perfect. But per­fection is seldom achieved. I think a volume of modest dimen­sions would contain all the short stories which even closely ap­proach it. The reader should be satisfied if in any collection of these short pieces of fiction he finds a general level of competence and on closing the book feels that he has been amused, interested and moved…

Ever since magazines became a popular form of publication authors have found them a useful medium to put their work before readers. All the greatest short-story writers have published their stories in magazines, Balzac, Flaubert and Maupassant; Chekhov, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling. I do not think it rash to say that the only short stories that have not been published in a magazine are the stories that no editor would accept. So to damn a story because it is a magazine story is absurd.

…In A Writer’s Notebook I added: “I suppose if I the modern school of story writers I should write it and leave it. It goes against the grain with me. I want a story to have form, and I don’t see how you can give it that unless you can bring it to a conclusion that leaves no legitimate room for questioning. But even if you could bring yourself to leave the reader up in the air, you don’t want to leave yourself up in the air with him.”

…There are literary vogues that come and go. At the present short story writers appear to have a disinclination for a quite usual and commonplace incident. The result drab stories in which nothing happens. I think the Chekhov is responsible for this; on one occasion he wrote: “People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall of icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason why an author should not write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it isn’t enough that they should go to their offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekhov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives; when they eat their cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup then becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or the anguish of a frustrated one. To eat it may thus be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg . But it is just as unusual. The simple reason for Chekhov’s statement is that he believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe; namely, that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do…

…The writer has his special communication to make, which, when you come to analyse it, is the personality with which he is endowed by nature, and during the early years of his activity he is groping in the dark to express it; then, if he is fortunate, he succeeds in doing this and if there is in his personality a certain abundance he may contrive for a long time to produce work which is varied and characteristic; but the time comes at last (if he is so imprudent as to live to a ripe age) when, having given what he has to give, his powers fail. He has fashioned all the stories he himself is ca­pable of digging out of the inexhaustible mine which is human nature and he has created all the characters which can possibly be constituted out of the various sides of his own personality. For no one, I believe, can create a character from pure observa­tion; if it is to have life it must be at least in some degree a representation of himself. A generation has arisen which is strange to him and it is only by an effort of will that he can understand the interests of a world of which he can now be only an observer. But to understand is not enough; the writer of fiction must feel, and he must not only feel with, he must feel in. It is well that he can bring himself to cease stories which might just as well have remained unwritten, He is wise to watch warily for the signs which will indicate to him that, having said his say, it behoves him to resign himself to silence.

I have written my last story.