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The art of writing a great short story

One of the most wonderful things about books is the way they fit into various book-sized holes in our lives. There are so many little gaps, nooks and crannies in our lives where we have small amounts of time to kill. 

Increasingly, in the age of the Information Superhighway, where enduring five minutes of shiftless silence is like waiting for the executioner’s blade to fall, people seem to be horrified with having time on their hands and nothing to do with it. 

And while it is easier and easier to just pop open some app these days and bear witness to whatever idiocy is trending in the news, on social media or on one of the countless content websites, books will always be unique. 

They are a special and wonderful way to focus the mind on one single thing and allow us to extract value from the spare seconds and minutes modern life seems to randomly intersperse among what feels like an endlessly blind rush through our day.

I remember reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in between university lectures and standing up to face the day secure in the knowledge someone else knew what it was like to grow up in an ethnic household.

I remember finishing Stephen King’s Dark Tower Saga after having been “volunteered” for work on a corporate help desk over the Christmas break, closing the last book and saying, “What a perfect ending …” to a roomful of empty desks.

I remember while being stuck in city traffic so dense that it did not move, Michael Crichton’s Airframe helped me resist the urge to swear at my fellow commuters. The irony of reading a book about how pilot error caused massive loss of life while operating a moving vehicle should not be lost on anyone.

And, relevant to today’s discussion, I remember picking up David Mann’s enchanting collection of short stories Once Removed because it was convenient.

I had been laid low with whatever respiratory plague was ripping its way through the north-eastern parts of the country. Diseases, as any doctor would tell you, do not care about your diary, and so when it came time to select a book to read for my upcoming deadline, I chose the shortest of the ones I had been assigned. 

This would give me the best chance to recover completely and finish reading it before time ran out and I was forced to submit an essay on the merits of cough drops to my perplexed editor. 

But, as it happens, a book chosen for its brevity also happened to be laudable for its quality. Had I known how much I would enjoy this collection of stories about art, those who make it, those who consume it and its varied and volatile impact on its surroundings, I might have selected it, regardless of its length.

Mann is an established writer, editor, lecturer and arts journalist and has accreditations enough to impress the most jaded reader. He nonetheless took the time to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing post-lockdown and the majority of the stories in this collection were brought to life as part of that endeavour.

Befitting Mann’s primary occupation, the throughline that connects the stories is art, specifically that produced in South Africa. The author has stated that this was deliberate. 

The stories explore how one’s life can be changed, in ways both profound and banal, by interaction with art and performance. 

And he does so with a wonderful elegance and an admirable economy of words. The longest story in this collection, The Burning Museum, is 17 agonising pages long, deliberately drawn out to illustrate the plight of the protagonist. 

The shortest, Provenance, lasts a mere three pages, a delightful amuse-bouche of wordplay and nonsense that bombards your brain like a burst of static and then is gone. 

Gettyimages 636761588 2 (1)
A picture paints a thousand words: David Mann’s short stories in Once Removed are about the local art scene. Photo: Getty Images

Through all the lengths in between, we get relatable characters and storylines framed against the backdrop of contemporary South Africa and the current, former and future artists that are keeping our vibrant cultural character alive. The stories, regardless of subject matter, are consistently and profoundly evocative and feel wholly familiar. 

This is rare enough in most stories, but to set those feelings up more than once, in the confined space of a restricted word count, is nothing short of spectacular.

I have long believed that greed and ego continue to be the enemy of art the world over. Mann echoes that sentiment repeatedly, and manages to illustrate how its impact through many thoroughly identifiable and relatable scenarios, including:

Resistance — an art critic gets trapped inside a small gallery as a protest takes place outside its doors.

Rain — The daughter of a photographer once well-known for documenting South Africa’s jazz scene during apartheid now struggles to reconcile the curmudgeon he has become with the free spirit he used to be.

Common Ground — A group of freshly graduated art students seek to form an interdisciplinary collective and change the world but end up trapped by inertia and infighting.

Meaningful Contributions — A spiritual sequel to Common Ground, the scraps of what is left of the collective seeks to salvage some street cred by planning guerilla art installations, but end up the victims of climate and circumstance.

Once Removed — A man deals with his feelings towards the waves of expatriations that South Africa bears witness to on a regular basis and struggles not to feel animosity towards those who belittle his choice to stay.

A Record — A wonderful metaphorical exploration of the creative process, and the laborious process building up of the knowledge and experience necessary to producing or critiquing art.

Settled — An artist and his life partner take a drive to their new home in a new city.

In summary, this exploration of art, its creators, its appreciators and its impact is a thoroughly delightful and worthwhile way to explore short-form literature. 

A highly recommended read.

Once Removed: Short Stories is published by Botsotso.


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