Distraction techniques: Neil Gaiman’s new book proves you can’t read a short story online

Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances reminds us that stories demand all our attention.

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Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances
Neil Gaiman
Headline, 352pp, £18.99

Is any writer so joyously comfy in the digital age as Neil Gaiman? He has a singular ability to spot a new platform, climb up and sing from it in his own voice. As @neilhimself, he has over two million followers on Twitter. His big-hearted commencement speech “Make Good Art” has hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. He is even responsible for one of those dodgily attributed quotations that flutter around Tumblr: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” This is, in fact, a punchy Gaiman précis of a complex paragraph from G K Chesterton.

Reading this collection feels like looking over the shoulder of someone whose browser has a thousand and one tabs open. Here’s a potential episode of Doctor Who; there’s a piece of Sherlock fan fiction, a fairy tale, David Bowie, Saint Columba. But all these clicks and hits are linked to one place – a good story, which is “the purest and most perfect thing” a writer can create, as neilhimself says. There are tales in this collection that are as pure and perfect as anything you’ll ever read. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is a sly gem of a ghost story. “The Sleeper and the Spindle” is a dark, witty inversion of “Sleeping Beauty”; “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, in which a mysterious stranger enlists a guide to take him to a cave full of cursed treasure somewhere in the Highlands, is a masterpiece that could have been written by Stevenson.

It is interesting that Saint Columba makes an appearance. Columba began his exile on Iona in penance for his part in the 6th-century Battle of the Book, a conflict that had its origin in his secret copying of Saint Finnian’s psalter: a kind of medieval illegal download. The subsequent ruling – “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” – marks an important moment in the history of books. Were they beautiful, magical objects, to be carried into battle as charms (as the psalter was)? Or were they a means to disseminate information? Should their magic stay locked inside or should it be shared? Trigger Warning seems to grow out of a similar rift – the alternating currents of struggle and synergy that flow between the page and the electronic media. Lots of these stories began life on the internet. “The Truth is a Cave . . .”, on the other hand, first appeared as a lavishly illustrated old-fashioned hardback.

Authors love writing short stories. Publishers – with heroic exceptions such as Comma in Manchester and McSweeney’s in San Francisco – hate publishing them. So the credits in the back of Trigger Warning make a moving read. The list of occasions and invitations to which Gaiman responded with a story is a map of the tiny fissures in the concrete of commerce, through which these flowers have forced their way into the light. That’s how it is with short stories. They find a way through.

Trigger Warning is full of brilliant borrowings from stories that I’m guessing Gaiman first encountered in the Armada books of ghost stories (they were numbered one to umpteen and could just as well have been called NOW That’s What I Call Gothic!), or the Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . anthologies, or the folk tales on Jackanory and Tales from Europe. Gaiman’s collection celebrates the durability and adaptability of the short story itself.

Turgenev famously said: “We all came out from under Gogol’s coat.” He was talking about Russian literature but he might also have been describing form’s ability to speak in what Frank O’Connor called “the lonely voice” – to create a space where the marginal and the odd can be heard; the voice you hear in Raymond Carver or George Saunders. A great short story leaves the page and smuggles those voices into the culture. There’s a direct line from the shivery clerk in Gogol’s “Overcoat” to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, just as there is from Boule de suif to Stagecoach.

Think of how many times you’ve used “The Ugly Duckling” or “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to help you navigate your way through life but how infrequently you have read those texts. They’re like memes: always changing, always recognisable, detached from their origins. Which has led people to proclaim hopefully that the short story is due a revival because it fits with our new, shortened attention span. You can read them on your phone! You can read them in ten minutes! We could put them on Reddit and finally make money!

In fact, the opposite is the case. You can’t read a short story properly online. Every word counts. You can’t drift. You have to surrender to “a beginning, a middle and end” that takes you “across the universe and back”, as Gaiman puts it. For all his joy in the tumble of Twitter and Google, these stories also express his ability to do the obverse – to switch off and concentrate. They demand all of your attention, something that our one-click world cries out to you never to give. So, to read a short story is a countercultural act, a little rebellion. The genre is at its best when it deals with discomfort, with feelings and people you don’t want to think about: the gaze in the street that you try to avoid, the noise in the night you pretend not to hear. That’s why it’s important – more so now than ever. 

This article appears in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging