PBR and Rejection Slips ~ Gina Frangello on “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers

Gina Frangello answers fellow conversationalist Vanessa Gebbie’s question about whether or not writing the short story is training ground for the novel. While Gina’s latest book is a collection of short stories called Slut Lullabies, her first fiction work (besides editing projects,) was My Sister’s Continent, a novel. (Begs the question: What came first, the novel or story? Or maybe it doesn’t. Sorry.)

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, from 1997-2007, I regularly got phone calls, letters and emails from writers I’d published, wanting recommendations as to where they could submit their collections of short fiction. Basically, their situations went like this: “Every story in the collection has been published in a good journal—some have won awards—but I can’t even get any agent in New York to read it.” Agents kept telling these writers that short fiction “didn’t sell.” Even if, on occasion, an agent read a writer’s work and loved it, the agent’s brand of encouragement was often reduced to, “Please get in touch when you have a novel.”

Reactions to this attitude can be varied, of course. There are many young writers out there who do “begin” with short fiction—often because it is the traditional form for university creative writing workshops—with the implicit assumption that they will write a novel “someday.” Of course, even these writers rarely enjoy hearing that their short fiction is totally devalued by the publishing industry. Writers who write both short stories and novels are not any less attached to their short fiction—work no less hard on it and believe in it no differently—than writers who write short fiction alone, and so even these writers (myself among them) have experienced many frustrations regarding the market’s attitude about the short story. Our agents often don’t want to submit our stories until/unless we’ve had a “big” novel first, for example, and we may spend four or five years toiling on a novel that never reaches those heights while meanwhile we have a collection literally collecting dust in the proverbial drawer.

But let’s forget those writers—writers like myself—for a moment. What about the writers out there who don’t write novels at all? How does it feel to be constantly told that your art is a mere training ground for some other form in which you have no inherent interest or drive? Isn’t this a bit like going to audition for the New York City Ballet only to be told that you’re amazing, but to come back when you’re ready to tap dance?

If agents and book publishers have so little interest in the short story form—and this has been true now for almost two decades: the entire careers of many working writers today—then doesn’t it necessarily relegate short story writers to that beautiful “ghetto” of literary magazines, essentially guaranteeing them that they will never find wide readership, much less make money, for their craft?

Most of us in the literary world (or certainly the independent publishing world) would readily admit that literary magazines are the gatekeepers for some of the best writers in the country. The vast majority of these magazines, print or online, are freer from marketing concerns than book publishers are. All but an elite few subsist mainly on arts grants and donations, so while of course all journals want subscribers/readers, the model of “making money” on a literary journal is all but completely passé, especially in this era where so many journals are free online. Therefore, to some extent the only thing that matters in these publications is “quality.” Nobody gets rich running them. Nobody has to answer to corporate shareholders. Lit magazines are rarely “crowd pleasers,” as most people . . . well, barely know they exist. What they aim to do, quite simply, is to rock the worlds of their own small audience. They have scant interest in publishing something simply because it seems marketable, hip, palatable, crowd-friendly—their editors strive to fall in love, and once smitten they don’t have to pitch anything to the marketing department for approval, they simply send an acceptance to the writer. Sure, some editors tend towards the incestuous, publishing all their friends or only reading solicited work while everything else languishes in the slushpile, and this can lead to homogeneity or compromised aesthetics . . . but those things are true in “big publishing” too, perhaps to an even greater degree. So in many senses, literary magazine publishing remains our purest and perhaps our highest quality forum for literature, and many writers are very content to build careers on these pages, perhaps eventually coming out with a collection from a university or indie press after they are already a “big name” in lit journal circles. They don’t necessarily hanker for more. Their small audience adores their work, and they are home.

But . . . what about the short story writer who yearns for something else? The big deal? Even the medium sized book deal? How about just a freaking agent? Well, unless they’re from a trendy country with which the United States is having some highly publicized skirmish; unless they’ve already published a successful novel; unless they are at minimum an Iowa alum with a bunch of fancy blurbs, Pushcart Prizes, and a short story in the New Yorker—probably they’re shit out of luck.

I’ve seen more writers go through this process than I can count. Even my co-editor at Other Voices, a talented fiction writer whose stories were being widely published in journals and anthologies in the 1990s, met with a similar fate. After spending years polishing her collection, devoted to her craft, she could not find an agent to represent her and was told so many times to “write a novel” that—for a time—she stopped writing anything altogether. Though she did eventually find an agent, even he pushed her to write something more commercial, i.e. a “women’s fiction” styled novel. Is it any wonder that so many gifted writers of short fiction end up focusing primarily on editing, teaching, or some other aspect of the writing world, giving up their early publishing dreams?

In the end, there is this: on a craft level, the short story is not a training ground for the novel. They are different beasts. That said, writing is training ground for writing. If you write enough short fiction and you get to be pretty damn good at it, chances are you could also write a novel if you truly want to and you work long and hard enough. And so, while much can be made and dissected (as we have, to some extent, already done in this blog series) of the difference between the story and the novel, the real difference here—the essential difference—has to do with what a writer wants out of his or her career vs. what the market wants. The short story can be mere “training ground” for the novel if the writer sees it that way. However, such writers should keep in mind that writing a novel is no neat guarantee of selling a book for good money at a big New York house either. Deciding to write “to the market” is a risky endeavor—one that can drain your pursuit of its passion yet not lead to an end-goal reward of fame or fortune with anything resembling predictability. Even if a writer is willing to forego all aims of writing literary work and crank out chick-lit novels or thrillers . . . well, think about it. If you think there are a lot of unpublished literary fiction writers out there, when hardly any Americans even read literary fiction and literary fiction writers make crappy money, just how many unpublished thriller writers do you think there are? Would you like to have Dan Brown’s money? Yeah, so would everybody else.

If there’s any moral (well, other than “the publishing industry sucks a little”—but what industry doesn’t?), it always comes down to the same thing. Write what you love. If you love novels, write one! If your only love is short fiction, stick to that. Your audience may be smaller. You may never make a living. You may never even publish a book, instead remaining in the mags forever, and for many ambitious young writers that can be a bitter pill to swallow. But if you were in this for money and the guarantees, you’d have been an attorney, or an options trader, or a doctor, or even a plumber. If you’re writing for guarantees, for money, or to be what the market wants, you’re probably at the wrong party anyway, and you should leave while you have a chance, because the party on the next block might have some caviar, and all we’ve got over here is PBR and rejection slips wallpapering our walls.

In the end, I got so many of those calls, letters and emails from my writers at Other Voices magazine, that I ended up launching Other Voices Books (www.ovbooks.com), where I have been honored and privileged to publish some of these brilliant short story writers myself, like Tod Goldberg, Corrina Wycoff, Allison Amend. We don’t make much money. Sometimes we lose money. We can’t publish all the books we want to publish, because we’re poor with a tiny and overworked staff. But you know what—we’re proud of every book we put out; we’re passionate to live, eat and breathe these books and their writers for a good year-plus of our lives. We no more see our work as, say, training ground for an editorship at HarperCollins, than writers of short fiction should see their work as a training ground for anything at which they do not wish to be trained. We do it because we love it. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Uh, unless you’re starving and living in your car. Which kind of brings me to my next question. As a publisher/editor as well as a writer, I notice that my answers often involve “industry” or market concerns, which invariably do end up relating to money. I tend to take a combination jaded/idealistic view on that front, essentially boiling down to the fact that, yeah, we all need to eat, but if you’re writing for the money you could really have found a simpler way to make ends meet, and that writing needs to be primarily pursued for the passion of it. Not everyone agrees with this, clearly. So, for our next question, particularly since we all write short fiction, a form that is now (as opposed to in Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s time) notoriously underpaid: What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?

 

 →Thanks, Gina. Well, the question is back to our conversationalists, Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, Dennis McFadden, and me. Money? Fame? Real jobs? Hey, don’t forget to troll around on the website here for some other cool stuff like John McNally’s writing nest and Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile. And Faulkner half-naked. And Dorothy Parker on lingerie. -PMc←

2 thoughts on “PBR and Rejection Slips ~ Gina Frangello on “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers

  1. Gary Carpenter

    Very thoughtful. I think the money is a very important part of it, unless you’re lucky enough to live off of a trust fund. Without passion, there would be no work, and any sane person would consider the money when deciding to write. The cliche of the struggling writer is a sad one, yes, but fairy tale stories do happen.

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