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#STBooks: Reading the Story Behind My Eyes by Ben Williams

By Ben Williams for The Sunday Times

During my recent trip to California, I spied a bottle of wine in a boutique liquor store near Venice Beach that was perfect for my bookish palate. The label was Field Recordings and the bottle was a red blend called “Fiction”. Instead of the standard over-inflated nonsense extolling the virtues of the wine, the vintner had printed a short story on the back.

(Quick aside: between its street poets and hidden bookshops, Venice Beach is a thickly literary place, even if this is not evident upon one’s first immersion.)

There’s often a fine line between commercial writing and writing for its own sake – Shakespeare wrote verse advertisements to promote his plays, for example – but not so much in South Africa, where even the best commercial writing usually boils down to an instruction to buy hot chicken.

Drinking my bottle of Fiction, I contemplated other places where it would be salutary to find a short story in lieu of the usual porridge of words. Here’s a partial list.

The undersides of bottle caps, where you often see a short code to text to enter a competition. What if, alternately, there was a fortune cookie-style epigram from a famous book? “The best of times”.

Unsolicited SMSs. They fester like cold sores on your cell phone. What a delight, on the other hand, to hear the phone beep, open the message, and find the equivalent of a far-east ink wash painting on your screen – a lively flash that momentarily takes you to another place, sent by some charitable, thumbing member of the literati. “The valley curved according to the desire line of the river that carved it. She looked at the far mountain, which was in the shape of a sleeping person, and, shading her eyes, saw something moving.”

Radio commercials for financial services. Why limit the experiment to print? The epidemic of banking and insurance advertisements – they’re like toxic jellyfish blooms, even coming in blue, red and green – is choking our airwaves. It would be a delightful surprise to hear, say, a few bars of a gothic short story with a fiscally prudent ending instead. Imagine “Mr & Mrs Steve & Prosper Savvy Get Ahead in Life”, set amidst fields of zombies or in the reception area of a dingy detective agency. The two protagonists are ultimately rescued by their flexi-cheque account. I’d sign up for that!

Speaking of radio: let’s replace LeadSA exhortations, which bear all the hallmarks of totalitarian thought-facism, with limericks. How do the people who work at Primedia cope with being told, constantly, to do good? “There once was a man from Cape Talk / Who cleaned up his patch of sidewalk…”

Airline safety demonstrations. If you fly often enough, hearing the instruction to breathe normally even though the bag might not fully inflate will, after the 30th or 40th repeat, cause you to commit self-harm. In place of the usual vapid dronings on matters to do with passengers’ immediate life and fate, I recommend that cabin attendants simply read, grimly, from Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Everyone will get the point.

The moon. There are rumours that advertisements will soon be projected on to the moon, which leads us to the ultimate challenge: the one-word short story. Which word would you project to displace, say, a cool drink logo? It should carry with it all the tightwire drama of a Chekhov tale. Mine would be: “Help”. – @benrwms


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