"The Universal Story" (2004, 12 pages)
Is A Dickens Novel Like an Old Whore?
"Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?"
Ali Smith (born 1962 in Inverness) is a British writer. She was born to working-class parents, raised in a council house in Inverness and now lives in Cambridge. She studied at the University of Aberdeen and then at Newnham College, Cambridge, for a PhD that was never finished. She worked as a lecturer at University of Strathclyde until she fell ill with CFS/ME. Following this she became a full-time writer and now writes for The Guardian, The Scotsman, and the Times Literary Supplement. Openly gay, she lives in Cambridge with her partner Sarah Wood. In 2007 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
One reason I wanted to read some of her stories is that she writes about people who live reading centered lives. I read two of her stories, one I was just flat out crazy for and the other I liked a lot. Both stories have a lot to tell us about the reading life and the very process of creating literature, especially short stories.
"The Universal Story" is the story I like a lot. As I read it I almost felt like I was looking over the author's shoulders as she wrote. I do not want to spoil the super creative start of the story for first time readers so I will not remark on it other than say I was hooked with the first sentence. The story has kind of four related elements. One of them is the life and times of a second hand book story that used to be on a main route until a national highway went through. I enjoyed being there with all the old books even though I am a mostly an E-Reader. A man comes in one day and asks how much is the copy of The Great Gatsby in the window. Then he says he wants to buy all of the copies in the store. It turns out his sister has an Arts Commission Grant to make boats out of unconventional material and she is making one only out of used copies of The Great Gatsby. This is enough to make you ponder the import of the boat symbolically, of course. There is also a fly in the story who lands on a copy of the book in the store. OK now it gets even more interesting when we begin to learn about all of the people who have owned this twenty five year old copy of The Great Gatsby. I really liked this part of the story.
"True short story" (no caps used by author) totally thrilled me as it will anybody who loves the short story. I was just so happy to have found this story and so sad when it was over. I loved it because it shows a deep love for and devotion to the art of the short story. It is told in the first person. A woman over hears two men talking about the merits of novels versus short stories, one of the men is much older than the other and she wonders about their relationship. I burst out laughing when I read these lines "The novel, he was saying, was a flabby old whore. A flabby old whore! the older man said looking delighted....whereas the short story by comparison, was a nimble goddess, a slim nymph." The woman calls her friend who knows a tremendous amount about the short story and has read a huge number of them and tells her of the conversation. "She has spent a lot of her life reading them, writing about them, teaching them and even on occasion writing about them." Her friend is dying of cancer, treatable by a drug she cannot afford and which the government will not give her until it has been tested, which will take more time than she has left. The narrator and her friend begin to talk a lot about whether the novel is really like an old whore, comfortable and still serviceable where the short story is a nymph. The other woman begins to talk about some of the things the great writers of short stories have said about them. It was during this phase of the story that I fell in love with "True short story". I am reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens now and the narrator refers to a book as "old whore, kind of a Dickensian one,maybe". Hum I had to think is Bleak House in some way like an old whore, and what actually is being said here? Two of the short story writers quoted are ones whose body of short stories I have read, Katherine Mansfield and Flannery O'Connor and I see the point, I think of calling them Goddesses and nymphs. They have none of the feel of an old whore, meaning that is an un-insulting a fashion as one can about them. Now assuming an old whore to be an experienced skilled sexual service provider with a charming manner who might offer you tea on entering her flat and chat with you a bit before doing the usual then OK I see what is being said here, or at least I think I do. Dickens knows what you want, even more than you do, and he gives it to you and he expected to be paid. There is a lot of sexual politics in this story.
I look forward to reading a lot more of the work of Ali Smith. I will advise you the Amazon ratings on are her very mixed, some people are very negative on her work.
As far as I could find, no stories by Ali Smith can be read online.
I have her forthcoming book (Jan 23, 2013) on pre-order.
Please share your experience with Ali Smith with us?
Do you see any sense in the opening line quotes, does it in any sense offend you?