Gina Frangello is the author of two critically acclaimed books of fiction, Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). The longtime editor of the literary magazine, Other Voices, she co-founded its book press, Other Voices Books, in 2005, where she is the current Executive Editor. She is also the Editor of the Fiction Section at the popular online literary collective, The Nervous Breakdown (www.thenervousbreakdown.com), and teaches in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Her recent short fiction can be found in Fence, F Magazine, MAKE, Fifth Wednesday, and ACM. Gina can be found online at www.ginafrangello.com.
Here’s what Gina had to say when asked “Why the short story?”
Gina: 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’t said. 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.