Asked by the Paris Review whether he rewrote his stories, the Irish writer Frank O’Connor replied, “Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” He elaborated on this in his introduction to Fish For Friday, a short story collection published in 1964:*
It is true that a number of my stories have been re-written a score of times — some as many as fifty times — and re-written again and again after publication. . . . This is a great annoyance to some of my friends, particularly my publishers and editors who would prefer me to write new stories instead; I am afraid it shows a certain lack of respect for one’s own public image . . . .
The only criticism of this eccentricity, if I may so call it, that ever shook me was that of the editor of The New Yorker in which so many of these stories have appeared. He asked, ‘But can you remember the story you set out to write?’ and it is a question I still cannot answer. I believe I can remember. I believe the essence of any story can be expressed in four or five lines, but I cannot prove it.
This lack of resolution rings true for me with most kinds of writing: there is no definitive version, nor can there be. It’s not in the nature of ideas, events and our interpretations of them to settle down into final and absolute coherence. We select a representative text, a best fit from many possible forms, as carefully as insight and circumstances allow.
Even this is subject to further variation — through the reader. That the same reader might read a set text more than once is misleading, because it’s never quite the same reader reading in the same way. As Borges put it in A Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw, “A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” Or, to adapt the old saying, you can’t step into the same book twice (hence part of the appeal of re-reading).
O’Connor (born Michael O’Donovan in 1903) was a master of the short story form. He felt that a novel was built around “the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters”; that it should create a sense of continuing life, whereas a short story need only suggest it. On confining himself to a four-line summary of his stories, he said: “If it won’t go into four, that means you haven’t reduced it to its ultimate simplicity, reduced it to the fable.”
* Regular readers might remember this title from a bookmash several weeks ago.