On the coming short fiction zombie apocalypse
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.