Conflict of Interest: The State of the Short Story (Part Two)
by Nathaniel G. Moore
The State of the Short Story (Part One) was published on Open Book earlier this week.
The best short story stands or lives up to the confusion and multiplicity of the world; it somehow digests all that information and sadness and hope and becomes a thing so much like experience and living that the real world shines newer, better, sadder, richer. There is no formula for this; imitation means another copy; something that much further from the sharpness of life.
—Spencer Gordon, Toronto writer and editor of The Puritan
As if fiction authors didn't have it hard enough living in a non-fiction, reality television, celebrity-memoir-dominated atmosphere, the last thing they need is to face a skeptical market, whose audience is seemingly preset on a categorical obsession to prefer the real. And if it is fiction, it has to be the right fiction, like a book that inspired a film. But in the emoticon era, why is there such a stigma orbiting around this "little" or rather, "short" genre?
Recently, a beloved New York magazine rejected an excerpt of my nearly completed novel Savage (don't worry fans, particles of this manuscript are coming out in a few key places this year), and the nexus of said rejection was: "I'm afraid this one isn't a good fit, style-wise. It reads too much like a short story for us to use." WTF? Short story? How dare you accuse me of writing a short story! I said to myself.
Obviously this could be an ongoing debate and research quest with writers, editors and booksellers taking shifts and sleep breaks as we all crunch the numbers and poll the universe for the quintessential minutiae. Instead I thought I'd just engage in a casual but earnest tirade and survey the different reputations the novel and short story have, what makes a novel a success over a short story, or (in the case of let's say Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" or any story by Alice Munro) the complete opposite. Did you know Stand by Me the film was based on Stephen King's short story called "The Body"?
I'm not searching for panacea, so much as attempting to out the stigma of the short stories' seemingly stigmata-like visible hard sell.
Pedlar Press author Ken Sparling accepts the enigmatic formula for a short story's success. "I don't know what makes a short story work, and if I ever figure it out, the next short story I read that has all the elements that I decided make a good short story will suck," says Sparling. "Only when I read another story that confounds all my expectations will I again know what makes a good short story." On his list of writers who do confound all his expectation, Sparling lists Mary Gaitskill, Elise Levine and Paula Bomer. "I've just started reading Peter Carey's short stories, and he knows how to do it. I remember the first time I read Barry Hannah's 'Even Greenland' not knowing what hit me." Sparling's next book is the novel Intention / Implication / Wind, which will be out with Pedlar Press in April.
Montreal's Kathleen Winter, author of the short story collection BoYs and most recently Annabel (finalist for this year's Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Governor General's Award) explained that, for her, the main difference between writing and promoting and selling short fiction versus a novel is money. "It's hard to get paid for a short story whereas if you write a novel that deeply connects with people ('Only connect' - E.M.Forster) you might be able to buy groceries and pay the rent with your royalties. The difference artistically has to do with freedom: short stories let a writer travel many terrains, even universes, with great liberty and excitement, whereas a novel keeps you in its terrain for a couple of years. I am not complaining about this — I like creating both forms, but the novel, for me, requires more sustained discipline. Ultimately I am concerned artistically not with form so much as with voice and psychological complexity. I need to see and write layers of grief and transformation, humour and tragedy. Novels and stories can both do this." Currently, Winter is working on a murder mystery and a non-fiction book about the Arctic as it relates to the human condition.
Humanity, it seems, is key to any writing process; it's what attracts a writer to tackle a creative premise in the first place. Rebecca Rosenblum (author of Once and with a new collection forthcoming this fall with Biblioasis) is concerned with a story's emotional core. Rosenblum feels this emotional focus is what draws readers in to care. "All the best short stories have the feeling that life was interesting and real before the first page and after the last page."
Rosenblum says she is puzzled by the novel/ short story chaos theory. "I love stories, no matter the page count, but a lot of people tell me without embarrassment that they hate short stories. I think it's the idea of interruption — that they're just getting to know the terrain, and then they have to stop and get to know something else. But I also wonder if it might be marketing — short stories are always positioned as uber-serious and literary. Even when they are funny, the cover blurb always reads "darkly funny." I think it's actually impossible to write engaging cover copy about 8 or 10 or 12 stories — it always winds up reading like a laundry list of plotlines. Not that I have a brilliant idea of how to fix that."
That is an important point though, and part of the marketing problem for the genre. How can you describe a dozen different stories in under 100 words for book jackets, sales reps, book clubs, booksellers and websites? It ends up, in my opinion, sounding like the back of a shoddy straight-to-DVD film, written by someone who didn't even watch the whole disaster.
Recently transplanted to Brooklyn, Brian Joseph Davis (fiction writer both in novel and short-story form and co-editor of Joyland) examines the genre conundrum from both a philosophical and call-to-arms perspective, "Can a short fiction collection stand on its own, divorced of the conditions which created the individual pieces contained therein? No, not any longer." Davis continues, addressing, perhaps, our own responsibility as a community of writers to possibly fix what is breaking. "But that doesn't mean we can't rethink what a collection is, and that's the mission of this generation of writers. Like it or not we're the ones who have to reinvent what books are, what kind of books still work, and what books don't."
Author of fiction both short and long, and now of course, venturing into the — one would imagine — "lucrative" world of screenplay writing comes Stayner, Ontario's Tony Burgess. "I don't really recognize the form I'm working in. Generally speaking, I stop when the fascination runs out. Although I'm trying to assemble something right now that might go on for a ridiculous length. I always try to put a loop or two in a story...something like a perpetual motion device...it goes on forever and in the meantime we re-enter a narrative already in progress. and other stuff." Burgess, who has been on a publishing bender lately with three new works since September, launches his latest fiction juggernaut with Idaho Winter, "it's a YA parody," Burgess assures me.
Process and inspiration, of course, are only part of the package. Ask any writer in a mixed group of people what they're working on and someone will ask them what category it belongs to. For some reason, now more than ever, our world is obsessed with categories and attaching crib-note-like value systems onto these little creative genres and properties. Instead of a book, it's a "bunch of short stories that are sort of about swamps and holidays" or "a collection of poems about the weather and chocolate" or "a novel about a man who watched TV on Sundays and then finds God living in his attic". It's hard to discover things on one's own anymore. It's as if the world has become one ongoing piece of performance art that replicates water-cooler banter at 9 a.m. at all hours of the day: online, in person, on the subway, airport and dining room table.
Ottawa's Mathew Firth, possibly one of the country's most honest literary commentators, is the author of three short fiction collections and has a vehemently clear-cut opinion about this alleged genre war. "Short fiction does not get treated fairly in this country when compared to novels and poetry. There is this notion that floats around that short stories are training wheels and that real fiction writers take off said training wheels and write novels if they're serious. I do not agree. Short stories are a completely credible form of literary expression. No one tells the poets to stop (although maybe someone really should,) and write fiction or copy for encyclopedias or whatever. But short story writers are merely tolerated, like adolescents, for the most part. Not by everyone, of course."
Firth's publisher (Anvil) has never hounded him for novel. Firth says this seems to be an anomaly. "I hear many critics and publishers say crap about novels being more marketable and palatable for readers. Since when do readers need to be spoon-fed everything? Christ, there's too much of that. Most novels would be better off as short stories. Cut away the fat and filler and get down to the action and do it in 2700 words, I say. Too many novelists indulge themselves, gorge themselves in their words and end up filling 200 f**king pages when it's not at all necessary to convey the story this way. Seriously, Raymond Carver had it right when he said, 'Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on.' More writers should take this advice." Firth's next fiction collection is due from Anvil Press later this year.
Acording to Spencer Gordon, a fiction and poetry writer and editor of The Puritan, the best stories come from authors who are well read. "This means looking forward and backward, having the past tremble mightily in your bones while the present is a neon gleam in your eyes. It means reading across borders. It means reading omnivorously, sluttily, your peers and your predecessors and the tabloids, but always with comportment. As Roberto Bolano said, reading is so much more important than writing."
Gordon says the best stories should possess a fine balance. "They should feel morally and ethically and philosophically serious even if they're playful and coy and about Diet Sprite and Lindsay Lohan's cocaine-filled nostrils."
This is the type of writing, Gordon believes, that implicates a larger narrative stage behind its original design, which may be understated. "They inhabit irony, in gesturing to silhouettes between what's said and what's implied. They eschew irony for gunky, dripping sincerity. They make you think that even sincerity is a gesture of irony. But most importantly, as Donald Barthelme said, they break your heart."
Toronto blogger, journalist and cultural persona, fiction writer and lass about town, Christine Estima believes the short story is a harder nut to crack than that of the novel. "In a novel, you have all the word count in the world to reveal characters and build a setting and atmosphere and tone. But most outlets that publish short fiction don't want it to be longer 2,500 words which means you have to be crafty with language and style and choices all while obeying the laws of brevity. Things that you could write entire chapters on have to come across in a sentence or two. There's a misconception that short fiction is an easier task than a novel, but really, it's the opposite."
And in terms of her own taste, Estima feels that consumer's taste and market trends have already set precedents, but feels this could change, that the shift in novel over short story could change due to society's desire for brevity. "I know for me, I love a good novel, but I'm also a product of the television-age, which has quickly morphed into a 140-character-Twitter-attention-span. So as a reader, I like my fiction short. I like having a daily dose of literary genius that lasts the duration of a coffee-break. Fiction on the go."
Stay tuned for Part Three of this special focus on the short story in a couple of days.
|Nathaniel G. Moore is an unrestricted Toronto free agent and author of Wrong Bar (Tightrope, 2009), which was shorlisted for the 2010 ReLit award for best novel. He will be at the Battle of the Bards 3 at Harbourfront where he has promised his 142 fans he will rid the stage of 19 other poets in under five minutes. www.nathanielgmoore.net|