The new Canadian Notes & Queries is out, once again with a cool cover by Seth: the best-looking litmag in Canada. Perhaps the best-looking magazine in Canada, period, although the good-looking guy on the cover of The New Quarterly makes for stiff competition….
But I digress. The new CNQ is out, and it’s The Gender Issue, with lots of articles on gender-related things by the likes of Nicole Dixon, Kerry Clare, Steven Beattie, Amanda Jernigan, and so on.
There’s even a thing called “Mine Clearance for Dummies,” on the challenge of approaching pornography in fiction, by some guy called … oh, hey, that’s me! Whaddaya know. Well, maybe that piece is more properly described as a complaint concerning the schoolyard quality of our public discourse, and a suggestion that fiction is uniquely qualified to expand our understanding. Sounds interesting. Maybe I should read it.
… 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.