Columns > Published on February 17th, 2016

5 Lessons the Short Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges Can Teach Writers

Every fan of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges remembers when they discovered his work. William Gibson describes it this way: 

I…remember the sensation, both complex and eerily simple, induced by my first reading of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius".… 

Had the concept of software been available to me, I imagine I would have felt as though I were installing something that exponentially increased what one day would be called bandwidth, though bandwidth of what, exactly, I remain unable to say. This sublime and cosmically comic fable of utterly pure information (i.e., utterly fictive), gradually and relentlessly infiltrating and ultimating consuming the quotidian, opened something within me which has never yet closed.

I discovered Borges halfway through my undergraduate years at Prescott College, and I recall a similar sensation. In reading stories like "The Circular Ruins," "The Library of Babel," and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," I was stunned. These stories were not character driven. They barely possessed anything that could be called scenes. And yet they opened up a gateway to another world.

What all of those stories do possess is a concept: One man dreaming another man into existence. A library that contains every possible combination of letters. A writer-turned-performance-artist determined to write every word of Don Quixote from scratch. Clever concepts of the sort that undergraduates tend to turn into terrible prose.

Borges stories are full of different riffs on the same themes, themes that he found aesthetically pleasing: Mirrors and reflections. Tigers and swords. Labyrinths and roses. Secret societies. Libraries.

I'd read enough of those sorts of stories in my creative writing workshops to know how badly they usually turned out. And yet, in the hands of this guy, whose name I could barely pronounce, they were thrilling. Borges was smart, yes, but he was also somehow funny, and I found his stories aesthetically pleasing on a deep level. And though his stories were different from one another, something about them felt the same. Why?

In recent years, I've come to realize that Borges stories are full of different riffs on the same themes, themes that he found aesthetically pleasing: Mirrors and reflections. Tigers and swords. Labyrinths and roses. Secret societies. Libraries. 

And yes, Borges was smart. But he wrote in a way that assumes the reader is just as smart as he is. This, I've come to see, is part of what's so charming about these stories, even when they're dense with allusion to classics that you have not read and probably never will read, even when Borges is talking about the works of obscure Greeks and Talmudic scholars--he never places himself above the reader. 

And somehow, despite his erudition, many of his stories almost seem a bit pulp. That's not surprising, considering the fact that the young Borges gorged himself on the works of Poe (whom he called the originator of the detective story) and Robert Louis Stevenson. Borges may have been high-brow, but he never for a moment forgot that the central business of fiction is storytelling.

The enduring appeal of Borges's short fiction shows us too that ideas matter. Because while some of his stories are constructed around the sort of "gotcha" endings we associate with O. Henry (say, for example, in Borges's "Emma Zunz"), some of them are built around ideas so astounding, so paradoxical and marvelous, that they linger in the mind long after reading. In Gibson's words, they increase the bandwidth of the brain.

If this were an essay aimed at an academic audience, I'd go on to illustrate these cheeky assertions with evidence from Borges's work and life (and throw in some footnotes here and there). But because this is an article for working writers seeking to hone their craft and expand their range, I'm instead going to offer up five things that I think the short fiction of Jorge Luis Borges has to teach us as writers.

1. Find your fetishes

Merriam-Webster defines a fetish as "a strong and unusual need or desire for something," "a need or desire for an object, body part, or activity for sexual excitement," or "an object that is believed to have magical powers." None of these descriptions is quite what I have in mind, but I believe this word comes closer than any other to addressing those themes, objects, situations, and images that hold some mysterious power for us as writers.

As Kelly Link notes on io9,  "the weirdest stories come from your own obsessions." In response to a piece of advice she once received at the Clarion Writers Workshop, Link made a list of things she liked to find in fiction, which includes such items as "theme parks" "invented narratives," and, of course, "zombies" (Link's Twitter handle is #haszombiesinit). She regularly returns to this list for story ideas.

Borges's stories are full of the sorts of objects I've noted above, such as mirrors, swords, and labyrinths (Gibson referred to Borges's "hallmark hall of mirrors") as well as situations like people facing execution ("The Seret Miracle"; "Deutsches Requiem"; "The God's Script") and revisions of classic stories and themes ("Three Versions of Judas"; "The House of Aterion"). 

What are things you like to find in fiction? Or, put another way, what are your fetishes? And how can you better indulge them in your work?

2. You don't have to start with character

Some years ago I was a teaching assistant in a college creative writing class. One of the students had written a story opening that was based, as far as I could tell, on an album cover: Whipped Cream and Other Delights by Herb Alpert and the Tijauna Brass. This story didn't have a whole lot going on in terms of character, which the teacher of the class--a fine writer and astute instructor--settled on as a point of contention: You don't arrive at story through nostalgic detail and sexual innuendo. You arrive at story through character.

It's generally good advice--advice that will set you up to write the sort of fiction largely published in contemporary literary magazines and journals. But it's not the only way to write a story, and the short fiction of Jorge Luis Borges reminds us that there are other points of departure, other foundations upon which to build fiction, and one of them is the concept. (It's the central feature of genre fiction for a reason.)

And the results can be just as literary as a character-driven story. Oftentimes, in my experience, when a story stands out from a batch of contest submissions (or the slush pile), it's because it dares to tell a story that's based on a concept. And while it's true that undergraduate attempts at these types of tales tend to be lackluster, that doesn't mean they're not worth trying your hand at. Sometimes a story is about what happens, not so much who it happens to.

3. All stories are detective stories

A key element of what makes conceptual stories work, though, is the manner in which the concept is revealed. In "The Library of Babel," Borges doesn't just drop it on us up front that this is a story about an infinite library. He starts with "The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries." He then goes on to describe those galleries and what they contain, playing with philosophical paradoxes along the way: "Let it suffice for the moment that I repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable." It's a bit of a mystery, one that piques the reader's curiosity, and it carries us through the narrative.

It's not until we're well invested in the realistic unreality of this place, it's twenty-two orthographic symbols, the meaningless strings of words found in some books (ancient or far-distant languages?), the fact that there are no two identical books, that Borges lays out the central conceit:

From that, the librarian deduced that...its bookshelves contain all possible combination of the twenty-two orthographic symbols...that is, all that can be expressed in every language. All--the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands upon thousands of false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary of that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.

From evidence, we've proceeded to conclusion: the library contains not only everything that has ever been written, but everything that is possible to write. But what, exactly, are the implications of that? That is, naturally, the subject of the rest of the story.

Too often when young writers have a big idea they believe that idea is enough to carry the story. In reality, the way that the idea is incrementally revealed is what makes the story work, the sense of a mystery unfolding.

4. The words are less important than the rhythm of the words

In In Memory of Borges, in the piece entitled "Borges on Borges," the writer says of his own process:

When I write I try to be true not to things actually happening but to my particular dream at the time. I know that the reader feels it in that way. If the reader feels that a writer is lying, he lays down the book. If the reader feels that the dream is in response to a real dream then he goes on reading. That's the way I think that literature is made--by sincere dreaming. Not just juggling with words. I try to forget the words and to say what I have to say perhaps not through the words but in spite of the words, and if a book is really good you forget the words. 

He goes on to say this:

But of course I must get the cadences. That's far more important the the plot or the metaphor or anything else--the right cadence, the right intonation for every sentence. That, I should say, is all important.

It sounds paradoxical, that "sincere dreaming" and the "right cadence" are what stories are really made of, rather than plot and words. But if we think about it, I'd say that most of us know what Borges is talking about here. The right rhythm sucks us in, to a place where the story itself seems to disappear and the dream at the heart of the story is our own.

5. Size is no indication of heft

Finally, if your short stories don't clock in anywhere near the 5,000 words that magazines and contests these days seem to favor, don't despair. Sometimes a diminutive story can pack an outsized punch. 

Any Borges fans out there? What has the master taught you?

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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