[Excerpted from this blog’s long series “Why The Short Story?” For full text, click here.]
Like so many writers, I loved to read when I was a child. I remember SRA books—do you remember those? You’d have to be of a certain age, and maybe of a certain region of the world. Anyway, SRA was a reading comprehension program for grade schoolers where you could read at your own pace, answer questions on a little quiz, and move onto the next book, the next level, and so on. They were stories, really, not books. Small pamphlets of one short story each. There were at least two educational premises going at once here with this program: 1.) independent learning; and 2.) speed reading for comprehension. Now I have to say that while I loved these little stories (I wish I could remember some of them, but we are talking decades ago and probably not the highest caliber of literature) I was not very good at advancing up through the ranks of readership. (Colors, there were colors. The pamphlets bore a certain band of color on their edges as did their question cards. A new rank, a new color. Like karate belts. Like national safety travel advisories at the airport. Only the colors on the SRA stories were not boring old white, black, brown, orange and red, but lovely, as I recall, fuchsia and teal and turquoise—is this true or just the fondness of the memory?—colors that little kids in the 60s would be attracted to, would strive for.) Still, it would take me a long time to move from fuchsia to teal, not because I wasn’t a good or avid reader, but because I was a slow reader. A careful reader. A savor-er. (Here I will insert that even today, in my fifth decade, I eat my ice cream with a tiny spoon, a kid’s-sized utensil. I want to enjoy every little bite.) I make no apologies for being a slow reader. Just last night while I was reading about the work of an orderly and a doctor (Enos) in the title story of Melanie Rae Thon’s collection First, Body, I found myself reading over and over again these sentences: “These exchanges became the sacrament, transubstantiated in the bodies of startled men and weary children. Sometimes the innocent died and the faithless lived. Sometimes the blind began to see. Enos said, ‘We save bodies, not souls.’” I read them with my lips moving, something they tried to teach us—as we plowed through our SRA stories—would slow our reading down. As though reading faster was reading better.
I was also a student of the phonics. We’ve all seen these commercials in which the little kids are reading something very difficult from an encyclopedia, with words like transubstantiated and sacrament, and while they pronounce everything very well, it is clear that they have absolutely no understanding of what they are saying. Perhaps because my teachers gave us things to read that made sense to us, stories we could relate to and understand, learning how to read a word out loud by using sounds was instrumental in my educational process. I can still remember reading the word “perhaps” for the first time. “Per,” I sounded out, and then “haps.” It might have been one of the first two-syllable words that I could read on the page; I was very young, and I was so excited by the feat. It became my favorite word for a while. One that I had heard and used often before this, but it found a way just about everything I said. My standard answer to most questions.
“Want to come over and play after school?”
“Can I have a bite of your sandwich?”
“Did you finish your homework?”
“Will you have your parents sign your report card?”
Mostly, though, what brought me to reading—and later, writing—was STORY. I loved stories. I loved reading them, telling them, hearing them, writing them. My father, Wilbur McNair (1919-1974,) was great at telling stories. Tall tales. Tales of bullfighting and solo flying and conferring with presidents and kings. (He did none of these things. I knew that, and yet, I was enchanted by his tales. What little girl wouldn’t be?) Sometimes I’d tell him stories, too, often drawn from the ones I’d read myself, taking on the leading role, the part of the main character.
In my early adulthood, though, reading became less important to me. Why was that? Too many late nights at the clubs, too many hangovers, too many friends who didn’t read at all, maybe. Dancing. Now that was important. Flirtation. But then, in the early 1980s, I found this little book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I know you know it. Raymond Carver. And regardless what you think about Carver or that literary generation’s minimalism or Gordon Lish or any of these things, I am not afraid to admit that these stories opened up a world to me. They were manageable (some no longer than those tiny stories in my SRA books long ago) and moving. They were brutal and they were fearless. I didn’t know that stories could do that. I didn’t know you could tell these things, say them out loud. And since they were so short, they helped me build my reading muscles up again. Like running a mile on your way to a marathon. I’d enrolled in my first writing class at Columbia College Chicago and was assigned Black Boy by Richard Wright, and this, too, drew me back into the magical world of the printed page.
But the short story, yes the short story. “Palm Wine,” by Reginald McKnight. “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, “Araby,” by James Joyce. “The Lesson,” by Toni Cade Bambara. “Rape,” by Gerard Woodward. “Morgan,” by John Schultz. “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. “The Vomitorium,” by John McNally. “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek. “A Temporary Matter,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. “A&P,” by John Updike. “Diamond Alley,” by Dennis McFadden. “Letters from Kilburn,” by Vanessa Gebbie. “How To Marry a Wasp,” by Gina Frangello. I have far too many favorites to name them all. Is there anything better than reading these? Why do publishers, agents, editors say we can’t sell short story collections? How wonderful they are, moments of life and imagination gathered together in a few pages. They can be like the three-minute pop song that gets it just right in three verses and a chorus. They can be bigger than that, a series of narrative lines that curve and braid and lead the reader to connections she considers for the first time. They have the capacity for grace and for resonance. They can be consumed on-line at the bank (does anyone stand in line at the bank anymore?) or on the subway ride to work or after you’ve turned off the television but before you turn off the light. Nowadays they can live on your cell phone (that’s your mobile, my British friends, check out www.cellstories.net) and in the pages of clothing catalogues and are spoken over the radio.
I love the short story. I love writing them. I love reading them. And I know that I am not alone.
A year or so ago, I had the opportunity to engage in a virtual conversation with four award-winning short story writers, Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies,) Vanessa Gebbie (Storm Warning,) Dennis McFadden (Hart’s Grove) about various writerly, readerly and other things. My first question to them, inspired by my ramblings above, was: Why the short story?
Dennis McFadden: I was flattered when my friend Patty asked me to join this conversation about writerly things with some of her writerly pals, flattered and perhaps (that is, “per” “haps”) a bit flummoxed. My credentials can’t compete. Unlike Patty and Gina and Vanessa, I’m neither a teacher, nor an editor, nor a full-time writer. I’ve had one book published. I’m a state worker, a project manager for the New York State Department of Health who tries to write an hour or two in the morning before work. My apprehension was validated when Patty kicked off the conversation with “Why the short story?” and all I could come up with was, well, why not the short story? Because it’s short, that’s why. Then, when I saw the eloquent and elaborate offerings of my co-conversationalists, I knew I was in trouble.
But one of my mother’s favorite stories came to mind, and I was granted a modicum of hope. Good old mom. According to her, I was no more than two or three when I looked out the bus window at a busy Washington, D.C. sidewalk and said, “Look at all the pedestrians.” Was that not eloquent? And, anytime you use a word with more syllables than your years, elaborate?
Still, there weren’t many books around my place when I was a kid. Nobody’d gone to college. Dad told a few bad jokes when he was drunk, but no bedtime stories. I remember getting my hands on some Hardy Boys books, and enjoying them, and when I was 15, I picked up a paperback called Boy With a Gun. It was, coincidentally, about a 15-year-old boy. It takes place during the Hungarian uprising, and the kid’s father and brother are killed, and he ends up fighting in the revolution, and he and this 15-year-old chick are crazy about each other, but the end left me hanging. The kid was still fighting. The war wasn’t over. He and the chick still weren’t together. What happened? What the hell happened? I had to know. So I wrote to the author, James Dean Sanderson, and asked him, and he actually wrote back! I tore open the envelope, about to have all my questions answered, all the mysteries revealed. But he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He was flattered, he said, that the book had affected me that way. He suggested I write an ending. Ishould write the damn ending! I should talk to my English teacher—I might even be able to earn credit for it.
Maybe that planted a seed, I don’t know, but I never entertained writing, not seriously, until my senior year, when my English teacher spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise. His name was MacBeth. That’s right. MacBeth.
How could I then not go on to college and major in English? I became known as a writer, a couple of stories published in the old “lit mag.” I was on my way. Then a funny thing happened. I took off 10 or 12 years after college to drink and party. And when I finally did get back to writing, it was to the novel, not the short story. My third book was pretty good, good enough to get me an honest-to-God New York City literary agent. But alas. All she succeeded in doing was getting me a higher class of rejection slips, and she dumped me after a year. In my state of despair, Irish activism caught me on the rebound, and I spent the next fifteen years getting England out of Ireland (no hard feelings, Philip, Vanessa). All I wrote during that period was propaganda, but I wrote it well and I wrote it plenty. And you know what? It wasn’t bad practice. Some of those satirical pieces are very much like short stories.
They had to be short. The old attention span blues that Gina referenced.
So maybe we’re on to something here. Short satire evolved into short stories as Irish activism fell by the wayside when peace broke out (thanks in large part to me, I like to think).
So why didn’t I go back to writing novels? Oh…just thinking out loud here…maybe because I hadn’t had one published? Just a thought. Maybe because I was getting older now, the green banana syndrome, hesitant to begin any two year projects? Maybe because I loved the high of finishing a story and craved it more often? I became addicted, jonesing for finishes.
It’s not that I really prefer one to the other, the novel and the short story. I read both, write both. I can become equally immersed—reading or writing—in both. The aforementioned Boy With a Gun, Plunkett’s Strumpet City, Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Nichols’s The Sterile Cuckoo—these are novels that have stayed with me all my life. On the other hand, I (like my new found friend, Vanessa) will never forget “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, nor Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children,” George Saunders’s “The Falls,” and any number of other stories, particularly those with an Alice Munro byline.
In the end, it probably comes down to goosebumps.
A few years ago I was sitting around a table at Stonecoast listening to Patty read a George Saunders story called “The End of FIRPO in the World.” Toward the end, I felt a wave of goosebumps breaking out on my arms, on my neck and back. Not for the first time, nor the last. Same thing happened toward the end of “The Ledge,” and many other stories I’ve heard or read—including, I’ll shamelessly admit, my own story, “Painting Pigs.” Same thing almost every time I write what is, at the time at least, the last sentence of a new story.
On the other hand, much as I enjoy novels, I don’t recall a single goosebump ever caused by one (though, admittedly, a single goosebump might be difficult to detect).
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you.
The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.
Well, I suppose the answer has to be – because it can do something that no other literary form can. If it didn’t, then there would be no need for it. But what is that special thing it can do? That’s a bit harder to define. It can help by comparing the short story to other forms, like the novel and the poem.
I struggled with short stories for many years without much success. I had novels and books of poetry published long before I managed to write a publishable short story, even though I’d been trying since about the age of ten. One reason for this, I think, is that I didn’t properly appreciate the form. I didn’t take on board precisely what it is that a short story does so well – that is, deliver a powerfully engaging narrative in a restricted amount of space. Too often I was treating the short story as a kind of overblown poem in prose (but not a prose poem, which is something quite different), or else they were fragments of novels masquerading as complete, self-contained pieces. I began to see that one couldn’t approach the short story with the same imaginative gear of a poet or novelist, you had to have the unique, special, short story head. Without this apparatus you were unable to see either the potential for short stories in the world around you, or to write them.
At the same time, the short story incorporates elements of both the poem and the novel. In a short story every sentence matters, every word matters, to a far higher degree than in a novel. Every word needs to justify its place, as in a poem. In such a small space there is nowhere to hide your sloppy writing or your sloppy characters. You are exposed. Every metaphor and observation needs to work, because they are making up for the extra three hundred pages you get in a novel. The short story also needs to tell a story. Sounds obvious, but short stories that don’t do this, that try to have the same narrative absence that is possible in a poem, say, usually fail as pieces of writing. So you have to appreciate and respect the form – respect the shortness, respect the storyness. Get a short story head.
You acquire this ‘short story head’ in the same way that you acquire a novel or poetry head, by reading lots of good short stories. For me, Raymond Carver was a revelation. In fact, an exposure to American writing generally has been fundamental to me both in short story and novel writing. Carver’s use of the telling detail, of dialogue that is so perfect it almost sounds artificial but isn’t, and his ability to wring gallons of drama from the driest and most mundane of materials, is a very enabling thing to witness. He is a great permission-giver.
It has been particularly interesting for me since I’ve been in the States and re-immersing myself, as much as I can, in the writing over here, to see how much more prominently the short story figures in the literary culture, compared to back home. In Britain, the short story has never really taken off as a form, it has never held the kind of central position it seems to in North America, where the short story, and in particular the linked collection of short stories (Anderson, Cheever, Steinbeck et al,) seems so defining. Strange, really, that given such a big landscape, such a diversity of peoples and histories, it should find expression through such a compressed and condensed form. But maybe that is the key. The vastness of American culture is perhaps best addressed through the small lens. I know people over here write big novels as well, but as has been so well articulated in the critical narrative of the last few decades, it seems scarcely possible to write a novel that will do the whole American thing.
I know, from reading these debates on line and elsewhere, that commercial publishing in America is as wary of the form as it is in Britain, and that there seems to be an odd reluctance on the part of readers to engage with the short narrative, preferring the immersive experience of the novel instead. But in America the short story does seem to be taken more seriously.
But then there are good signs on the horizon. As I said in a comment to an earlier post, there does seem to be the beginnings of a revival in Britain, with two high profile competitions which are getting lots of national media coverage. My own publisher, Picador, has just brought out a collection by an unknown writer (Stuart Evers – 10 Stories about Smoking). Perhaps this will at last transform into a genuine popularisation of the form. In a world of short attention spans it would seem ideal – but then who are we to presume attention spans are shortening? Perhaps the next generation will actually have better concentration skills. You never know.
Gina Frangello: I was recently talking with my friend Rob Roberge, whose stellar short story collection, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life, came out a few months ago, about the difference between stories and novels. Rob was talking about the way stories tend to begin at one specific, individual point, and as they develop they open up more and more onto the world, the best ones often ending at a point that, rather than offering neat resolution, offer numerous possibilities and directions. Novels, by contrast, often begin with many disparate stories or realities that—as the novel progresses, all converge down into one overlap or resolution. In other words, the short story is shaped like a funnel, starting on top with the narrowest point, and then broadening as it progresses. The novel would be a funnel turned upside-down, so that the broadest part is its beginning, and it narrows down as it goes along.
There are always numerous exceptions to any rule, but this image really struck me. I write both short stories and novels, just as I read both, and I don’t favor one form over the other. I don’t believe that one is inherently “better” or offers more—I think those things are more internally dictated by what speaks to a specific reader, that mysterious alchemy of connection that happens between the reader and the writer, even though usually they never meet in person. But I do think that stories are harder to craft than novels, and I do think that, to do a story well, the funnel-shape is practically mandatory. While not all novels are upside-down funnels, a good story almost always needs to start with a very specific character or incident that feels highly intimate and immediate, something that “hooks” the reader immediately since the short story doesn’t have fifty pages in which to “flirt” with a reader, but has to sink its claws in fast. But the kiss of death for a short story is the “punch line” ending, the ending that can only be read one way, the ending that reveals all and with only one possible interpretation. The best short stories should be able to be read over and over again, each time yielding something new. If you get to the end of a story and feel that everything has been so completely addressed by the ending that the earlier elements of the story no longer hold any intrigue, mystery or appeal to you—if all that matters is the story’s end—then the story may be entertaining but it’s never going to make the emotional impact or haunt the reader the way the great stories do.
The trend now is towards very short shorts, where it seems as though anything longer than 3,000 words is a “long” story. Anyone who can write a brilliant story in a couple thousand words is truly talented and has my admiration. My own preference, though, is for a meaty, longer story. When I edited Other Voices magazine, most stories we published were more in the 6,000 word range, and my own stories tend to span anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000 words. Two of my favorite short stories ever are Mary Gaitskill’s “Heaven,” the finale story of her debut collection, Bad Behavior, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent,” the finale piece in The Interpreter of Maladies. Both of these stories offer the richness of a good novel—they are long in terms of the “typical” contemporary story, but their complexity and depth is almost unbelievable considering their shortness compared with the novel form. I like a story that’s a little messy. I teach “Hills Like White Elephants” a lot, but I usually teach it next to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which is sort of a companion piece to it in some ways, though I’m not sure either Hemingway or Carver would have seen it that way. I see those two pieces as related in the same way that I see Morrison’s Beloved as continuing a dialogue with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I don’t think “What We Talk About” is a better story, per se, but I love the way it’s able to offer so much intense characterization and the illusion of a “rambling” piece, yet in the end the story is just as much about subtext as “Hills” is—its real meat lies in what isn’tsaid. The dialogue is masterful. Dialogue can be hard in short fiction, because there’s less space to really reflect the indirect way people actually talk to one another, but when a short story nails it, the dialogue, in a sense, is the story. That’s incredibly hard to do. Short fiction can be like drama in that sense, like writing a play. The short story is an incredibly diverse form. It combines the best of various other literary art forms.
The dominant corporate publishing industry seems to have decided, for the most part, that the short story is an unmarketable form. Fewer short story collections come out with the big, corporate houses, and fewer print magazines, especially glossies, publish much short fiction these days. Collections (and even more so, anthologies) are very hard to get reviewed by the mainstream book media. The reason for this is pretty simple: corporate publishing is run by marketing departments these days, and the marketing departments answer to corporate shareholders, and it’s all about an economic bottom line. Collections are hard to “market” because they’re very difficult to reduce to a one-sentence tag line or description. There may be 10 or 12 stories in the book and they’re all about different things and different people. Marketing departments don’t like that—they like things that are very easy to describe, that have one, unified target demographic. The one thing that collections do offer over novels—that kind of range and diversity, where a writer can really showcase a variety of talents, interests, obsessions—is exactly what New York doesn’t like about collections. But this is stupid on a variety of fronts. For starters, we live in a short attention span world. For the generations who are coming of age with YouTube and handheld video games, who crave instant gratification, the short story is an ideal literary medium. Even a long story can be read in one sitting if it really grabs you. People are busy—we work longer hours and have more competition for our free time now, given the internet—and being able to have a wholly satisfying experience by reading one short story before bed . . . this is a marketing angle I’m always shocked to find the big publishers seem to be blind to. The youth demographic is really untapped by big publishing in terms of the short fiction market. Only the indie publishers seem to realize how appealing it is to be able to download an individual story onto your iPhone and read it on the subway. I mean, I personally will happily read a fat ass book like Middlesexor Freedom, but there are people who aren’t necessarily immersed in lit culture who see a novel that big and immediately won’t buy it. Not that Eugenides—or especially Franzen—are hurting for sales! But what I mean is, what about the fact that short fiction offers short attention span literature for people on the run, not by “dumbing down” literature ala certain genres that aim to be “quick reads,” but by actually being—organically—quick reads yet still possessing incredible complexity? What if a demographic that is being spoon fed chick-lit to read on the beach or on the train to work in the morning could actually be reading short story collections or anthologies?
Some of the best short story writers working today are publishing with indie presses, who have become gatekeepers of short fiction. And almost all serious writers of short fiction—even the superstars of the genre like Dan Chaon and Aimee Bender—have rich histories with the literary magazines. It’s ironic that writers like Fitzgerald used to write short stories to pay the bills while hammering out a novel, whereas now most literary agents or big house editors will tell writers to “come back when you have a novel,” relegating their short stories to the mostly-unpaid (and always underpaid) world of nonprofit independent publishing. As an indie press editor myself (of Other Voices Books), I certainly feel that big publishing’s loss has been small publishing’s gain . . . but as a writer, I’m saddened to see how utterly impossible it’s become for a writer of short fiction to earn any money unless they are one of the chosen few who regularly place work with the New Yorker.
The American reading public has a wealth of material to choose from in terms of short fiction writers. Tod Goldberg, Laura van den Berg, Allison Amend, Aimee Parkinson, Alan Heathcock, Pinckney Benedict, Cris Mazza, and of course Patty’s new collection . . . I could go on and on. Yet amazingly, this market is still so under-tapped in the publishing industry. One of my great hopes for the transitions in the industry right now is that short story writers will find wider opportunities for getting their work out there into the hands of readers where it belongs.
But that’s like saying why the dream?
Or why the root in the ground?
Because that’s what they all do – they act (if we let them) as portals. They grow into something far greater than the wordcount – they are the wardrobe in ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ or the rabbit hole in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
Who needs mind-altering substances when you have stories? Do novels do that quite so well? Mostly, no. because the author is doing the filling of the world for you, to a large extent. They are making you live the dream they had themselves. Whereas with a good, well-written story – it plants seeds. They grow inside you. Its world remains alive after the pages are done. There is less closure, even if the story, that story, has finished. Is that a function of length, of our need to live longer than that? Is it a legacy from our ancestors, telling stories round cave fires, stories that span off each other until the night was filled with worlds?
Like you Patty, I read voraciously as a child – I don’t remember what speed I read at, I just know I read a lot. I learned on ‘Janet and John’ books at nursery school (age 3-4 – don’t know what US grades those would convert into…) and they were so boring, my gaaad I learned quick just to move on out. My mother was a librarian, so it was never a problem getting fresh books. I devoured Noddy by Enid Blyton, was weaned on the Milly Molly Mandy stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley and The Wishing Chair and other Blyton horrors, (as they are now regarded) by 5ish. I was reading – who cares about the quality of the prose – the STORIES mattered! I was entering into another world each time I started a new one. I was a lonely child, desperate for friends, yet ill at ease with other children. Fiction was the perfect friend; add my own imagination and we were happy playing for hours…
I became a famous journalist at age 6. I wrote a newspaper, one issue only, in blue crayon, lead story a scoop about a man riding a bike in shorts with his knees projecting too far into the road. I’d seen him from the back seat of the car on our frequent journeys from the south of England where we lived, back ‘home’ – for my parents – to Wales. Sadly, my newspaper tycoon era was short, but I remember not long afterwards, on another journey, and it was dark, noticing a train running along in the distance, left to right – and saying it was like someone pulling a gold thread through a cloth made of night.
‘You’ve got the eye of a writer’ my mother said, unwrapping a barley-sugar. She was usually right.
I think what that means is (but what do I know, I just put down the words) that I notice things. I translate them. I find significance. Characters appear who ‘own’ them. They become metaphors whether I will or no. Some alchemy happens and they become stories. Sometimes, the stories cluster and become bigger things, big stories as opposed to short stories… we called them novels, didn’t we, a while back, although that is a misnomer. ‘Nouvelles’ should be factual if we are true to their roots, as in ‘here is the news’. So the type of ‘novel’ I like is actually cluster of stories that take flight, a kaleidoscope, ever-shifting. A community thing, a collective world within which is a series of individual worlds. Not that far removed from the warmth of a fire, in a cave, a kid falling asleep to the rise and fall of voices, watching sparks and stars working together overhead.
My ‘text book’ when learning to write, was The Best American Shorts of the Century, edited by John Updike. How do you not want to try to achieve the same effect ( by that I mean reader-involvement, caring, the depth of engagement) as Cynthia Ozyck in ‘The Shawl’. How, when you’ve read what I think is most perfect of short stories, ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall – do you not despair? But you can’t not try, can you?
→Thanks again for reading. -PMc←