This was a difficult judgement. These stories did fierce battle.
In the wonderful tradition of the short story, Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ creates a small, complete world of its own in very little time. So does Beverley Farmer’s ‘Darling Odile’. Both these stories are about the pain and pride of being young. Farmer’s is about trying to become a romantic, fictional version of the awkward adolescent self, and Le’s about creating oneself in spite of one’s family. Both have terrific violence seething beneath the development of the protagonist. Both could be autobiographical.
But the ‘themes’ of these stories are not what I care about, and have nothing to do with my judgement. We don’t read for themes, not really. I never read Raymond Carver because I was curious about working class American couples. For me, as always, it comes down to the lines, and to the paragraphs.
In that other essential thing the short story does, namely, creating that small complete world without wasting a single word in crucial economy of prose, one of these stories was better than the other. I like to hold short stories up to the Isaac Babel test, a master story writer of last century. Almost everything falls short, but it doesn’t matter. It helps to reveal what’s good and what’s bad in the form of other short stories. Plus it’s more stringent than the Chekhov or the Alice Munro test. In ‘Guy de Maupassant’, Babel writes ‘no iron can enter the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time.’ A short story is like a compressed novel, a single image. The full stops need to be perfect.
Nam wins because his story was slightly better written. This story tries to represent everything its title promises, and brought to my mind Phillip Larkin’s caution—‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ Moreover, I liked his full stops better. I had more trouble finding a satisfying rhythm in Farmer’s heady adjectives. Although, if it were it a question of measuring up against Babel’s gorgeous lightheartedness and poignancy in the face of violent terror, Farmer would have been the winner. There’s a lovely kindness to her story.
A few of Le’s sentences surprised me. As Babel said, the reader asks for bread, ‘and he must indeed be given what he asks for—but not in the way he expects it; he ought to be surprised by what he gets; he ought not be given what he can easily recognise as “a certified true copy” of life—the essence of art is unexpectedness.’
Reading ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ over and over again I was able to find points where the prose became perfectly transparent to the story it tells.
WINNER: LOVE AND HONOUR AND PITY AND PRIDE AND COMPASSION AND SACRIFICE by NAM LE
Anna Heyward is a reader, writer and translator, co-founder of the Haplax school of reading, a school for reading Australian and non-Australian writing, based at the University of Melbourne.
Ben: And so here we have a true grudge match, with Beverly “Furious” Farmer up against Nam “The Gesticulator” Le. Interestingly, the judge Anna Heyward states that it comes down to the lines and the paragraphs, which raises a note of concern for me, in the area of fairness. Did the competitors know these were the criteria before they started? Because if Farmer had known she’d be judged on her lines and paragraphs, she may have paid closer attention to them. As it is, she struggled against The Gesticulator’s legendary full-bore paragraph offence, which she just found herself unable to stave off. Jess, your thoughts?
Jess: I think the real winner in this match up isn’t either of the two big names listed on the board, but rather Isaak Babel—someone many readers may be familiar with thanks to the acclaimed 2006 biopic ‘Babel’ in which Hollywood heavyweights Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett took turns in depicting different facets of the Russian writer’s life and public persona. I mean, I’ve not actually seen the film ‘Babel’ yet but I assume this is what it’s about? In any case, it’s clear that Isaak Babel is an unstoppable force, smashing through the likes of Anton Chekov and Alice Munro and metaphorically clambering between the ropes in the middle of Nam Le and Beverly Farmer’s bout, dishing out perfectly placed full stops like it’s no ones business, and then surprising everyone by flinging unexpected loaves of bread into the crowd before disappearing just as quickly as he appeared. Ben, I think I’ve consumed too much caffeine today. Please take over.
Ben: Look I think we can all be grateful that this round has reminded us of everything that Babel did for us, and as for the contest, in the end, as was noted, Nam Le’s story was ‘better written’, and as unfashionable as that may be in today’s iPad 3 fax machine-obsessed world, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
Jess: You bet it is, champ. You bet it is.