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A brief glance into the crystal ball

March 17, 2011 1 comment

Health Canada advises that crystal ball gazing is hazardous to your credibility, yet we insist on doing it anyway. Call it an addiction.

Literary journalism is particularly addicted to the crystal ball these days, as publishing is in crisis — by which I mean to say only that publishing is in perhaps slightly greater crisis than it usually is. (We are doomed. When’s lunch?) The latest example is found in the pages of the Globe & Mail, which is to say, online at the Globe & Mail — a distinction I make because it will soon become important — wherein the ever-hapless John Barber endeavours to get a read on the future of publishing.

Among Barber’s “trends to watch” is the revival of the short story, which is exemplified by … well, pretty much nothing at all, as there’s no evidence of a “revival” in progress.

What there is, in place of evidence, is a great deal of hope that the new world of electronic publishing and e-books will lead to a renewed interest in the short story. It makes sense: your e-reader doesn’t care whether you read a thick tome, or a thin one, and the disappearance of distribution costs means that you can sell single stories, instead of relying on collections or magazines to carry them. But I’m a-gonna tell you, don’t bet on that horse.

The notion that electronic media will promote the short story as a form relies on rigid ideas of form that themselves are shaped by past media. New media is as likely to change a form as to revive its popularity.

Consider the novella. (All those who whine that the short story receives no respect should consider the novella at length, and shut up.) The novella has all but disappeared, and the reason is simple: the reader, that person who (in theory, at least) buys books, tends to buy by weight, not volume. The twenty-dollar price tag on that trade paperback becomes steadily less attractive as the book grows skinnier; to the reader, buying this thing is like paying full price to watch a 30-minute movie. And so, with the exception of a few writers who specialize in the form (Jim Harrison), nobody writes novellas.

The same pressure leads novels to grow thicker. A 400-page novel is more attractive than a slim, 200-page novel, even though that 400-page novel may consist of 200 pages of novel and 200 pages of filler, word meal and editing by-product. Some readers equate the thickness of the novel with its difficulty, and therefore with their prowess as readers, which explains in part the appeal of William Vollmann. Readers like doorstops, and so there is pressure to pump air into a story to make it bigger, pressure that is created by the medium in which it is delivered — the book, with its physical heft and price tag.

Similarly, the short story is a product of media. It was created by the magazine, and the constraints on its length are created in part by the number of column inches available in an issue, and in part by the attention span of magazine readers.

We have already seen how, when liberated from the constraints of the magazine, the short story may grow. Short stories in literary magazines today are unlikely to exceed 5,000 words (at most), but when published in a collection, are often much longer. This is not to make the book thicker, one hopes; you could instead include one more story. It should be because, freed of artificial constraints on its length, that story can grow to its natural dimensions.

I believe strongly that every story has natural dimensions. Some ideas lead to novels, and others to short stories. Some lead to novellas. Too often, we try to squeeze these things into a smaller space, to fit into a magazine, or inflate them to fill the expectations of a novel. The results are not good.

A new medium in which to deliver stories, one that puts paid to artificial constraints of length, is not likely to promote the short story so much as it is likely to make the boundaries between short story, novella and novel fuzzier. We will still have short stories in our brave new world, but only as defined by some arbitrary definition that uses word count to place short stories in one bucket, and novellas in another. The notion that length defines form, in that context, begins to look silly; if, for example, a short story is under 7000 words, can you define the formal differences between a 6,999-word short story, and a 7,001-word long story?

Perhaps, in the future, we’ll stop talking about short stories and novels and begin talking only about stories, and how they are told.

Categories: publishing, short stories

On the coming short fiction zombie apocalypse

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Today I ran into this piece at n + 1 on the state of American fiction, which is four years old (thus demonstrating how badly I keep up), but worth a read. It begins with a thought-provoking premise:

…the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus….

Let us not delve too deeply into the historico-philosophical dialectic; the natural general principle that will subsume this case may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon.* Let’s just accept that the conditions that created the golden age of the short story, the golden age of the magazine in which we had no television, no longer exist, and inquire as to what does sustain the short story as a form.

That would be creative writing programs, and the little magazines that are inseparable from them. The large number of story collections published here in Canada surely reflect not so much the excellence of the Canadian short story as the large number of MFA grads with pockets full of published stories, looking to get a book out before they write their novels.

In short, the short story is stumbling around like a zombie, its dead flesh reanimated by MFA tuition payments. Which reminds me of something the movies never quite explain: after they eat us all, what will the zombies do next?

It’s a fascinating question—I mean whether the short story today is an unnatural creature, not my little aside about the living dead—that one could argue either way. Unfortunately, the n + 1 piece quickly goes off the rails, crashes through a stand of red pine, and tumbles down a steep embankment until it comes to rest in a small, rocky creek, into which it spills its entire load of carbon tetrachloride, thus wiping out an entire generation of salmon and unwittingly demonstrating the importance of variability in the life histories of migratory fish. It transpires that the author simply doesn’t like short things; 19th century Russian novels are the only way to go.

Consider the rather disingenuous complaint about opening sentences:

“The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” I had to stare at these sentences (from Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” and Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier”) for several minutes each.

Really? Several minutes? That sounds like a literacy problem to me.

That the contemporary short story begins in medias res is a trivial complaint. What about big problems? Jim Harrison, who never misses a chance to bash MFA programs, complains of the “teeny” poems and “little” stories that result. Harrison’s instinct is expansive; he continually risks sentimentality, insisting that the work has to matter, has to deal with the stuff of human desire.

This sprang to mind recently as I read Patricia Young’s story collection, Airstream, and Annabel Lyon’s first book, Oxygen. Every story in Oxygen is brilliantly written, but brilliant writing can’t rescue the weaker stories in the collection from their essential lack of substance. “Sexy Rex,” for example, is an empty exercise: a couple has a dog, dog gets lost, dog comes home. The writing is precise and rich with detail, but none of the characters ever takes on any genuine humanity.

In Airstream, on the other hand, every story surrounds, without needing to resolve, some human crisis. Every story touches on something vital, without ever tipping over into sentimentality or backing off into the kind of ironic posturing we adopt when we fear tipping our hand. This is what short stories should be.

It’s not enough that stories make pleasing word patterns. They should ask us, also, to give a shit. When I consider what I too often read in our little magazines—formal innovation for its own sake, big conceits overlying empty characters, etc.—I don’t.

_____

* If you thought that phrase meant something, you were in error; it is computer-generated bafflegab courtesy of the Chomskybot.

In which I flee the country…

July 19, 2010 1 comment

… having overpowered my captors when they came to pour my daily ration of thin gruel through the slot in the door. I am now safe in a foreign country that, for security reasons, I cannot name, but which is known for its wonderful tea parties and the refined quality of its public discourse. But my captors have a long reach, and longer memories, and although, for now, they are distracted by The Bachelorette, if I am ever to return to the wilds of Ontario, I better wrestle this damn essay down to length.

There is no justice. I mean, if Conrad Black can get bail, I oughta be able to.

I did take the opportunity, while stowed away in the back of that cattle truck what brung me here, to finish the new CNQ, which is a thing of beauty, or was until I got cattle shit all over it. These are the risks of the writing life.

Douglas Glover’s piece on Alice Munro’s “Menetsetung” is worth the price of admission all on its own, and Ryan Bigge has confirmed all my suspicions about Anne Michaels. I am saving the Rebecca Rosenblum story for an appropriate time.

I found Alex Good’s piece especially thought provoking.

My initial reaction was irritation: Good opens with a straw man, complaining that Haruki Murakami presents the short story as a “somehow less important, inferior literary form” in certain quoted remarks. In fact, Murakami does nothing of the kind; he simply contrasts the short story with the novel, and observes (among other things) that the short story makes a wonderful laboratory for the novelist. This does not imply that the story is inferior; on the contrary, it implies that the novel is a lousy laboratory. Which it is.

Laboratories are where experimentation happens, and the novel takes too damn long to write. Short stories, on the other hand, reward risk, and you don’t get anywhere without taking risks.

Good does go on to make a trenchant point about MFA programs, however. The typical writer’s career path in this country proceeds from the MFA program to the small magazines, thence to a small press that publishes a story collection, and onwards to glory with the big fat advance from the major publisher. This is, as Good points out, the inevitable result of what he calls “the fiction economy.”

Considering this, I began to wonder if the complaint that the short story is seen as a minor form isn’t a straw man generally. I have seen only one writer (Jane Uquhardt) say such a thing; everyone else nods and says that short stories are harder than anything (which is, of course, the prevailing orthodoxy of writing courses). I think the problem isn’t that we view the short story as a minor form, but that we view it as a commercially difficult one. So we can hardly be surprised that writers want to find greener pastures.

I think two points can be made here: that the declining sales of short story collections may result from the fact that most short story collections are first collections by writers who intend to move to the novel. Not all first collections are brilliant; many are not. One need only consider the little magazines to understand that not all short stories are good. Canada’s fiction economy fails not only because it pushes people to write novels; it fails, also, because publishing short stories is viewed as an obligation.

Secondly, it may be that so many of our novels are, in Good’s words, “startlingly dull and conventional” because their authors are trained as short story writers rather than as novelists. That short stories are not simply shorter novels is a truism; it’s equally valid to point out that novels are not simply long stories. It is wrong to think that, having learned to write short stories, you can write a novel simply by injecting more air.

Each form makes its own demands, and we may gravitate to the things that work best for us. Alice Munro has said she can’t write a novel, which she hardly needs to. Jim Harrison has said he can’t write short stories, and most of his readers would agree he is at his best in the novella.

Perhaps Canlit has too many poet-novelists, and too many short-storyist–novelists. Perhaps we need, you know, novelist-novelists.

As for making the short story commercially viable … I just speculate speculations.

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