The Long And Short Of It, Session 2: The Richness Of Short Stories

On Monday 12 March 2024, we had the privilege to hear the writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap in conversation with OU Associate Lecturer Dr. Alistair Daniel. In this second instalment of the MK Lit Fest series The Long and Short of It, they explored the unique challenges and pleasures, and possibly also pains, of short story writing.

PhD student, Anne Wetherilt, offers here a summary of the event for those of you who couldn’t make it.

A headshot of a middle-aged bald male with a beard, wearing rectangular glasses and a floral shirt

Alistair Daniel

Black and white headshot of middle-aged Asian male author Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Author has short hair and is wearing circular glasses and a collared shirt.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap









Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Alastair Daniel wrote earlier this month burst onto the literary scene in 2005 with his debut story collection, Sightseeing. It won the Asian American Literary Award and was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award. 

Short stories, Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote, need to be read in one setting. But this, Lapcharoensap argues, short-sells the short story. An avid reader of the form – he quotes James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Katherine Anne Porter and Junot Diaz amongst others – Lapcharoensap is drawn to the short story because of its ability to capture the individual and the collective experience, and its intense awareness of human loneliness. 

 His short stories have a strong sense of place. ‘I want to write the truth about the communities I felt part of’, he tells us. Indeed, in Sightseeing, he gives us a richly detailed picture of Bangkok in the 1980s and 1990s. The stories are rooted in experiences he witnessed as a young person and carried with him as an adult. And whilst they touch on topical political issues, his main aim is always to tell the truth about his characters’ lives. 

 When Sightseeing came out, William Sutcliffe, writing in The Guardian praised its ‘novelistic richness’. Lapcharoensap aims to achieve this richness through his characters. Even though a short story gives the reader only a glimpse of the character’s life, you can present the whole person: where they came from; what they have done earlier in their life; how they have lived their life. You can write beautifully and with great emotional clarity, he asserts, a short story need not be short in terms of descriptive power. 

 In Sightseeing, these stories typically narrate the experiences of young boys or adolescent men. But they are brought to us by older first-person narrators, who calmly observe and report their own earlier encounters with life. This older first-person narrator, Lapcharoensap reflects, brings an interesting perspective to the story. They may have greater articulacy, but often continue to be bewildered.

Given the centrality of place and character in his stories, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that Lapcharoensap usually starts the writing process with a scene or a character. Asking ‘who is speaking’, he expands on a notion, a feeling, a telling detail or bird’s eye view. The story line may emerge later – although sometimes it doesn’t. This early composition is like playing in the dark, he explains, and proceeds without a plan. But planning comes in when he starts revising and here we get a glimpse of the personal discipline Lapcharoensap applies to his writing. Revision is about looking for opportunities to exercise the imagination, he believes. The creative act is not just the initial inspiration – the artist struck by the imagination in his study. Rather, such moments occur in the sequence of drafts, when ‘something beautiful emerges from the lumps of despair’.  

 For all their promise, short stories can be prone to clichés and pitfalls. Lapcharoensap is particularly wary of the emphasis on epiphany. The Joycean epiphany can be beautiful, he argues, but as a narrative habit it can also be limiting. Not every character needs to act, stumble and learn from their mistakes. Weak epiphanies or false epiphanies abound in short stories, and as a genre requirement, it can limit a young writer in their development and imagination. Another pitfall, he admits, is to create characters like yourself, which you don’t allow to fail or behave foolishly. Invariably, this reduces the richness of the story, and the fictional narration becomes wishful fulfilment. 

 Part of the joy of being a short story writer, Lapcharoensap notes, is in seeing them published as part of a collection. Each story is written on its own and should stand on its own feet. But they are enriched by their neighbours, as the writer organises them in a particular way to achieve formal and thematic dignity. 

 Sightseeing closes with ‘Cockfighter’, which at 90 pages is closer to a novella. This particular one did not end, Lapcharoensap explains. ‘It just wouldn’t stop and I continued to be interested in it’. As a reader, he loves the novella – it has the expansiveness of the novel yet requires the rigour and economy of the short story. To this reader of Sightseeing, Lapcharoensap moves effortlessly across the two forms, offering us ‘novelistic richness’, as well as sheer reading pleasure. 

 The series will delve into the novella form on Monday 18 March and conclude with the novel on Monday 25 March.

Banner advertising upcoming Monday evening online events: Short story, 11 March; Novella, 18 March; Novel, 25 March. Images of book covers by each of the guest authors.


Headshit image of a middle-aged woman with blonde hair in a ponytail wearing a black crew neck t-shirt

Anne Wetherilt

Anne Wetherilt is a part-time PhD student in the Department of English, funded by the Open Oxford Cambridge (OOC) Doctoral Training Partnership. Her thesis – ‘Decolonisation and the Female Middlebrow: Politics, Economics and the Novel’ – studies the work of women writers, who witnessed the end of the British empire. Her supervisors are Prof. Alex Tickell and Prof. David Johnson. 


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