Why The Short Story? ~ A National Short Story Month Remix

[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?”

“Perhaps.”

“Can I have a bite of your sandwich?”

“Perhaps.”

“Did you finish your homework?”

“Perhaps.”

“Will you have your parents sign your report card?”

“Perhaps.”

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.

The bastard.

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.

Gerard Woodward: 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.

Vanessa Gebbie:OK – Why the short story?

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←

Punch Line = Kiss of Death ~ Gina Frangello on Endings

Gina Frangello takes time away from her many deadlines (including finishing edits on her new novel) to answer Gerard Woodward’s questions about endings–best ones, preferred ones, how to find one, etc. As a companion to her answers here, why not look at her novel My Sister’s Continent, or her short story collection Slut Lullabies?

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, it may be fair to say that the most frequent kiss of death in an otherwise well-written, engaging story was the “punch line ending.”

You know: that story with a resolution that—once you know “what happened,” all is so resolved that you never really need to read the story again. The story wherein every single line and nuance pointed to an Exit sign, and once the Exit has been revealed, those nuances are no longer satisfying because now we know.

These types of stories (and novels) can be awfully exciting to read on the first sitting. There’s a good reason the thriller and mystery markets are so popular. But, with notable exceptions, they rarely hold up to or invite re-readings. They exist on a tightly wound string that tugs the reader along . . . and once we reach the finish line, the string goes once again slack, never to regain its tautness. Those signifiers don’t point to anything anymore, because the question (the only question) has already been answered. Case closed.

I don’t, if it isn’t already apparent, much care for stories like that.

Like all writers and avid readers, my favorite works of fiction are ones I’ve read over and over again. They are stories that yield a different result depending not only on who’s doing the reading, but at what moment of his or her life. They can be counted upon to yield new surprises each time—not in terms of finding out “who dunnit,” but in terms of a new resonance in the way a detail may serve as a dark echo of an earlier detail; in the way a character’s psyche opens itself up in vulnerable ways that may have seemed flinty and cool on the first read. The way that, say, upon first reading Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, the narrator, Daniel’s, Theory of the Other Couple may have seemed either a startling epiphany or a pitiful grasping at straws, and then, rereading the same novel ten years later in a different political climate and at a different stage of life, may seem precisely the inverse, so that both things become simultaneously True.

In my debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, twentysomething Kirby narrates both her own story and that of her identical twin, Kendra, who disappeared some unspecified number of years prior, leaving behind only some journals written during a period of intense instability. If arguably Kendra is an unreliable narrator of her own life, then clearly Kirby’s second-hand narration is more unreliable still. In the end, the stories Kirby chooses to tell about her sister may reveal more about her own desires or demons than they do about Kendra’s—or at least as much. The novel is not without plot twists or surprises, but even in some of those cases, it’s never entirely clear whether a new development is an Absolute Truth, or simply what one of the twins believes happened. While the sisters’ story contains certain immutable facts, much else falls into a gray terrain of “perhaps,” and as such can be interpreted in different ways by different readers.

The way we interpret may, of course, reveal as much about our own desires and demons as they do about the characters’, or even the author’s.

Not all literary fiction must be completely open-ended, clearly. Narratives like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where we end literally with Milkman mid-jump towards what may be his own murder—or Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?” where Connie may be heading out her screen door to be raped, or may be heading out to be murdered as well, or may somehow be unexpectedly saved before meeting her doom—do tend to be more the exception than the rule in literature. Most stories/novels contain some measure of resolution, and that’s fine with me. Unrelenting open-endedness could quickly become almost as formulaic as the “punch line ending” if done to the point of . . . well, formula. The issue is more one of how many ways there are to read a story, and whether the reading is identical to every reader. Does the story offer Truth or truths?

I prefer the latter.

On a closing note: one thing I always remind my students is that every person has his or her own narrative, in which s/he is the star and the one whose actions are “right.” Whether aiming for the perfect ending for a story or whether simply trying to develop characters, a writer can scarcely hold in mind anything more important than the way the story might shift if looked at from another character’s angle. Writing fiction is much more like, say, parenting, than it is like riding a bike or sticking a plug in an outlet or piecing together a puzzle. There is no one right way to do it, but rather a myriad of successful and unsuccessful techniques and approaches that often overlap and intersect, so that a “great” story is not always the same as a “perfect” story just like a great dad may not be a perfect dad. If we struggle towards anything as writers, it is understanding. Sometimes, when I’ve written an open-ended conclusion to a published work, readers ask me what “really happened,” and although I have my own picture in my head, I maintain that my vision—once the story is on the page—is no more or less real or definite than anyone else’s. We are all in this messy, ambiguous and resonant business of fiction, like life, together.

P.S. It’s been such a pleasure to engage in this dialogue with Patty, Vanessa, Gerald and Dennis, and it’s so fitting to end on the note of endings. Thank you, Patty, for including us all in the discussion, and thanks to all my fellow writers for this vibrant exchange.

 

Gina, thank you for taking part in this conversation. We’ll keep up with your work and ideas about writing on The Nervous Breakdown. And readers, keep checking back for more on the art of endings from Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, and me. -PMc←

Gina Frangello’s Plan B ~ On Writing and Earning

Continuing with “Why the Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers, author of Slut Lullabies and My Sister’s Continent, Gina Frangello answers her own questions about making money as a writer.

Gina: Recently, I posed the question to this group about how our writing lives are impacted by financial concerns. We are a diverse group of writers, and the responses thus far have been equally diverse, from Dennis McFadden, who works full-time as a projects manager for the New York State Department of Health, to those leading a more traditional “literary life” (a category that itself entails much diversity, both economically and in terms of what this means for how much writing time such a life actually permits).

Money is a deeply complex thing in the arts world. Although there are writers, painters, musicians, etc. who make a great deal of money at their craft, these individuals are perhaps more in the “minority” than in any other professional guild, so to speak. Among attorneys, among nurses, among teachers, among advertisers, among electricians—among just about any profession one can think of that isn’t arts-based—there is less extreme disparity between those who attain a celebrity level of fame and money, vs. those who literally earn not one dime for their work . . . like, ever. Generally speaking, if you train to become a doctor, for example—going to medical school and graduating—the only reason you would make absolutely no money would be if you are not currently practicing medicine, or that you have obtained sufficient wealth that you have made the choice to now donate your expertise philanthropically as a volunteer. Writers, sculptors, guitarists, on the other hand, may literally work daily at a craft that never pays, period, and that necessitates full-time work in another field for the entire duration of their lives. Even taking into account those in the arts who may lack the essential dedication or skill to succeed, there are indisputably legions of driven, talented people out there who simply never “make it,” and part of that equation entails a particular relationship between art and money that seems unique to any other field.

I grew up poor. This is something people tend to say, because “poor” means different things to different people: being the poorest members of an extended family; the poorest household in an otherwise affluent town or suburb, etc. My meaning is pretty literal: my family was below the poverty line, which at the end of my youth (the time I left home for college) was 10K annually. My father never graduated from the 8th grade, and no one in my entire extended family—on either side—had ever gone to college. Hence we were poor both economically and culturally: a distinction that’s become increasingly interesting to me* as I age, since I know many, many writers now, as an adult, who make a low annual income but whose lives bear little in common with the lives of the culturally-and-educationally-impoverished people I knew in my childhood.

Like many writers, I have written since my earliest memories. I dictated stories to my mother before I could print, and then illustrated them and made them into stapled “books.” I began writing my first novel in earnest at the age of 10, ripping pages off a brown butcher roll of paper my mother had bought to save money. I meticulously hid my writing from my peers, who already considered me a dork for reading so much and constantly wanting to go to the library instead of hanging on the corner, playing sports, or chasing after the neighborhood gangbangers. When I put the nail in the coffin of my own weirdness, by neighborhood standards, and went away to college (on grants and loans), I had already been writing fiction for basically fourteen years, but it never occurred to me for even a minute to major in writing.

I had never met a published writer.

The one “writer” I knew at all was unpublished, unemployed, lived in my parents’ garage and tended to have a lot of dead ants on his floor. He drank too much and died of liver disease in his fifties. I had never—regardless of the season—seen him without the same tan raincoat, nor had I ever seen his hair clean. To say that he was not an ideal role model (though it may also be true that he was the best-educated person I knew in my youth—and according to my father the most “interesting”) would be an understatement.

As I saw it then—and as I still, I must admit, see it now—anyone who would major in writing as an eighteen-year-old college student with no clear vision of how s/he will make a living in this big world must have a trust fund. (Since most of my writing students here in urban Chicago have nothing resembling trust funds, I realize that this perspective is not accurate, but must conclude that my students are a far more optimistic lot than I.)

But as for me at eighteen: I majored in psychology. I was going to get my PhD and open a private practice, or so my plan went. I got all the way through my master’s degree and practiced as a therapist for three years before starting to stay up all night writing my first novel, and calling in “sick” to work in order to stay home and write, and—in my mid-20s and one year into my marriage—defecting from the practical plans of my youth and going back to grad school in writing.

At this point, my husband was on a NASA fellowship in space physics, and if I’m remembering it accurately that was something like 25 or 30 grand per year. This was in 1994. By the standards of my youth, you have to understand, this was Rockefeller terrain—this was the kind of money I would flagrantly quit my job for and go back to pursue my previously unattainable dream of writing as a career. My husband and I labored over this decision and decided that we were going to swing it—that we would live on his income as an academic (he was doing a post-doc at U of C at that time) and somehow pull together a life in which I could write full-time. Previously, it had been a given that I, as a therapist, would probably make more money than he ever would as a physics professor. Now, that plan was upended, and any solid income from me was no longer a “given.”

It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago. So many things have changed during that time. My husband, tired of moving from city to city and grant to grant, soon left the world of space physics and went into finance, where his income has improved (though is arguably even less stable and predictable, given the current economy). I, meanwhile, got my master’s in Creative Writing, published quite a bit of short fiction in lovely literary magazines that almost never paid, started reading for and eventually took over the editorship of Other Voices magazine, got most of my way through a PhD program, launched a book press in 2005, have taught at several colleges (most consistently at Columbia College Chicago), had two books of fiction published, became the Fiction editor of a hugely popular online literary site (The Nervous Breakdown), have gone through three literary agents, recently went on a fairly massive book tour, have another novel coming out in 2012, and just two days ago finished a new one that is about to go out “shopping.”

These days, I am often asked to blurb books and write letters of recommendation. I appear, it seems, to have a career in writing—and if judged by Dennis’ standards of standing around literary conferences, readings and parties (with or without shrimp), talking shop with other writers, I indisputably lead a “writing life.” To be blunt, I am pretty geeked out with excitement about this literary life of mine, and the ghetto girl who grew up knowing no one who even owned a bookcase can scarcely believe it is real.

Here’s the part I can believe: I make about as much money (less than 25K in my best years) as I figured I would, back when I—very accurately—assessed that, if left to a writing life, I would never be able to pay back my student loans, raise children, buy a house, or support my parents in their old age.

If it were not for my husband’s more standard career—and his unfailing support of my writing, editing and adjunct teaching—I would not be able to lead this lifestyle. The house I could do without, sure. But being a mother—and keeping my own parents financially afloat—are non-negotiable issues. If my family needed me to earn more money, then my editing, my part-time teaching, my taking time off traditional work to go on a book tour . . . those lovely perks of my life would be out the window in a heartbeat.

This is a fine and nuanced point, as it turns out. Because there is a difference between leading a writing life vs. being a writer, just as there is a difference between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty. Because even if I had become a psychologist with a private practice, I would still write fiction. I wrote fiction in elementary school, in high school, in college, while getting my graduate degree in counseling, while working as a therapist. No matter what I was doing, ever, I would continue to write. I would no doubt write somewhat less than I do now if I were also the primary breadwinner in my household. But to think about a life without writing, period, would be like a life without love or a life without air. It would be an impossibility.

On the other hand, I lead a certain type of literary “lifestyle” that is tied deeply to economic circumstances and choices. People who lead this sort of lifestyle—working nonprofit and teaching without tenure and having enough free time to hang out at readings or go to AWP every year—often fall into two categories: those of us with some other economic means (a dual income with one’s spouse, or the luxury of having come from money), or those of us who have made very difficult choices and lead an extremely Spartan lifestyle—one that may never involve home-ownership or raising children, for example—in order to be able to focus heavily on our art, whether or not it pays well.

There can be loopholes. Some writers may suddenly hit it “big” and earn good money on their craft, sure. More commonly, tenured professorships—increasingly hard to come by, but still the most coveted gig for most writers—can provide enough financial security that extreme sacrifices no longer have to be made, and though professors are not wealthy, they can usually afford to have a family, go somewhere cool on Sabbatical now and then, and still have enough time to write, which adds up to a pretty sweet life.

But my question . . . well, back to my question, huh? How does money impact our choices as writers? Well, some writers I know have made financially-driven choices within the writerly arena (such as writing novels based on successful TV series, or giving up literary fiction to write chick lit) that will support them in somewhat higher style without it meaning that they have to get some kind of office (or health department) job. For some writers, this can offer a compromise they find livable: a best of both worlds. But many writers—myself included—just don’t have the right skill or interest set for those kinds of compromises. For myself, I have always felt that if I were to suddenly face financial choices that made it imperative that I earn better money, secure healthcare for my family, then I would go back to working as a therapist, or perhaps teach high school English, rather than “changing what I write” to make my work more lucrative or—that loaded word—“marketable” in the arenas of publishing where the money is. To me, from the very first, the concept of writing has always been fully inextricable from being able to write what I love. Short fiction and literary novels, whether the market rewards these forms financially or not. All that other stuff—the publishing, the networking, the touring—is so much fun icing. But it’s never been even half of what I’m in this for. I write, as most writers I most admire do, because I have to. But more: I write what I have to write, psychologically, artistically. I don’t choose my style or topics based on practical concerns. The work chooses us, as much as the other way around.

The writing life is a beautiful life. There is an almost obscene pleasure in being able to talk about books for a living—a surreal honor in being entrusted with work-in-progress from students and from writers who submit to Other Voices Books or The Nervous Breakdown. There’s incredible camaraderie and rich, lifelong friendships to be found in a tribe of fellow-writers, fellow creative writing teachers and in-the-trenches indie editors, that would be hard to trade for water cooler office politics at an ad firm or something. If you’re like me, and never thought you would have the luxury to live in this world, you spend pretty much every day grateful, and work—even when you’re toiling seventy hours per week for the kind of pay you’d likely exceed as a line cook at McDonald’s—feels like a glorious vacation. This would be a hard world to leave, now that I have had the privilege of dwelling in it.

Someday, I may have to leave it. My husband’s industry is a volatile place. The world is a volatile place.

Should things change, I still don’t foresee myself abandoning short fiction and attempting to become a chick-lit writer or something to bring in some cash. I don’t see myself attempting to mold my writing around my financial realities. I think I would go back to Plan A, in which my writing would have existed on the sidelines of an Other Life, the life in which I would have been supporting my parents and children with a full-time, more predictable job and income.

Ironically enough, I might have no less writing time in that alternate scenario. Editing a book press and TNB Fiction, plus teaching, in addition to mothering three children with no childcare, does not exactly leave me with a full-time writing schedule as it is. Sometimes I write one or two days a week. Sometimes I do not write any new fiction for six months. I’m guessing I would manage just about the same amount of writing time if I were seeing clients or teaching high school. I’m guessing that the things that really matter would largely stay the same—that the work would remain.

But Dennis, I’m not gonna lie. I would really miss the shrimp.

_______

*The multi-layered distinction between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty is one of the main topics of this interview I did for Michael Kimball over at The Faster Times: http://thefastertimes.com/writersonwriting/2010/07/28/i-have-a-character-in-my-head-michael-kimball-interviews-gina-frangello/

Thanks, Gina, for your very thorough and frank answers to these questions. Gerard Woodward, recently returned to the UK after having been visiting writer here at Columbia College Chicago for the past five months (we’ll miss you Gerard!), is next up to answer Gina’s questions. Thanks for reading. Happy Short Story Month again! -PMc←

Sheep Herding and Shrimp ~ Dennis McFadden on Earning as a Writer

As part of our on-going Conversation Among Writers “Why The Short Story?”, Dennis McFadden takes on Gina Frangello’s questions about the financial implications of a writing life.

Dennis: Man, talk about déjà vu. How many times has something like this happened to you? Standing around at the old writers’ conference cocktail party, having wormed your way into a conversation among a few faculty members, you throw in a couple of comments that aren’t too terribly far off the mark, and they all look at you appreciatively, as they might at a trained seal who’d managed to nose the ball through the hoop. Then they chatter on amongst themselves for a while until one of them asks if anyone’s tried the shrimp yet, just as you’re popping another shrimp into your mouth.

Did I mention my “traditional” career? A project manager with the New York State Department of Health? Not that I can blame Gina. Turnabout is fair play, after all. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bunch of us project managers were standing around trying to have a decent project management conversation when some writer (usually with misbegotten aspirations of someday becoming a project manager) tries to horn in. We might patronize him or her for a little while, but that gets old pretty soon, and we eventually forget he or she is even there.

So I certainly can’t blame her for not noticing me standing here, munching on the shrimp. I’ve never met her, and her rejection slips from “Other Voices” didn’t convey a lot of her personality, but I’m willing to bet she’s a nice woman. So, just to keep the conversation going, let’s take her questions one at a time and see if we can unearth any relevancy for a project manager and part-time writer.

What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? None, now. Not much then, either. When I left college, I was branded a good writer, and I knew two things: I would probably always write, and I would probably always have a “traditional” job. My background was strictly blue-collar, I wasn’t all that far removed from my parents’ Great Depression, and I harbored a subtle but actual dread of ever being in the position of not knowing where my next meal was coming from. A career in writing was every bit as likely as a career in outer space.

Naturally (having been branded a good writer), I also harbored a distant, vague notion that someday I might meet with some writing success, perhaps even enough to be able to chuck my day job—about the same probability as perhaps winning the lottery someday. Of course taking a decade or two off from writing probably didn’t lower the already formidable odds against that ever happening. But when I finally did get around to writing again, I turned to the novel, not the story, a decision that was probably financial to some degree (relevancy, at last!). If that remote possibility were ever to occur, it wouldn’t be because of a short story I’d written, it would be because of a novel. As the wonderful writer Manette Ansay would tell me years later, “I love the short story, but it’s the novel that pays the bills.”

How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? The money I’ve earned from my book and the stories I’ve published in magazines that actually pay in American dollars (Confrontation sprang for forty bucks!) might have almost covered an all-expenses-paid vacation to downtown Albany, but the writing expenses—those conferences ain’t cheap, never mind postage, envelopes, paper clips—precluded my dream vacation. So I’ve resigned myself to being content with the tax write-off.

Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? You mean besides getting up at 5:00, 5:30 every morning? Besides pissing off my wife by going to those conferences nearly every year, then having to eat bad food and read untold numbers of ungodly stories and try to come up with something nice to say about them? And having to try to talk to faculty members and hope they remember I’m in the conversation? Besides all that? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. These are the sorts of sacrifices one has to be prepared to make for the sake of one’s art, aren’t they? Nobody promised us a rose garden.

Oh, you mean financially? No.

Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Many years ago, as I was climbing the bureaucratic ladder, scratching and clawing my way to the middle, I was sorely tempted to just say the hell with it and become a shepherd. As a matter of fact, I went so far as to fill out the paperwork, but that was nipped in the bud when it came to light that I was allergic to wool.

But maybe that isn’t all that relevant to this particular conversation.

Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? As a grandchild of the Depression, I’ve never met an indecent dollar. You know the rest. If you’ve been listening.

What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, as I’m not sure mine qualifies as a “writing life,” at least in the context of the question.

But I’m willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

The harsh realities of economics (I can remember when gas was twenty-five cents a gallon, and the snow was up to here!) mean that I have to keep my day job, so the cons would include the aforementioned early rising (hey, I’m getting older, I get sleepy) and the other sundry aforementioned sacrifices. Of course, the pros were also mentioned afore: seeing your work in print, knowing that someone else besides you is actually reading the stuff, reaping in those glorious forty dollar checks. And writing. The pure, unadulterated pleasure of it. Creating lives where none were before, watching them strut and fret, feeling the goosebumps rising…

I could go on, but I think I’ll go stand over there and munch on some shrimp.

Hart's Grove

Stop by our View From the Keyboard series tomorrow and you’ll see Dennis McFadden’s 5:00 AM writing space and his trusty writing partner. Dennis, thank you. -PMc←

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←

Since we’ve started this conversation…

Our short story conversationalists have had a few rather lovely things happen in their writing lives since we started chatting about writing. Dennis McFadden, up next with his response to the question “Is the short story a training ground for the novel?” has had “Diamond Alley,” one of his stories from Hart’s Grove, chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011; Gerard Woodward’s short story, “The Family Whistle,” has moved from the long list to the short list for the very lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2011 (site has a cool little video with judges comments on what makes a short story great); Gina Frangellos collection Slut Lullabies has been named a finalist in ForeWords Book of the Year Awards; Vanessa Gebbie’s collection Words from a Glass Bubble was selected by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers;” and me? Well, no big prizes or short lists (if I say “yet” here will that screw with my karma?) but the first offering of The Temple of Air, the Story Week Limited Release, sold out before the end of the festival and I have been signing books for friends and new readers alike–a very humbling and exciting experience.

So these writers who are giving so generously of their time to fill the pages of this blog with their thoughts on the short story are the real deal, folks. I hope you enjoy what they have to say on the subject. And do feel free to join in on the conversation. Maybe their magic will rub off on you just a little. Or maybe yours will rub off on them (us.)

Oh, and you probably figured this out, but the lovely image above is by Pablo Picasso. The man whom we named our cat after. We call him Pabs, usually. He has a brother named Enrique (Reeks.)

Reading, by the way, exhausts him.

Story Week! Story Week! Story Week!

Story WeekA crazy busy week this one with Story Week Festival of Writers 2011 underway here at Columbia College Chicago. Once again under the fine direction of the 3 Wise Men of Story Week – Fiction Department Faculty Member Sam Weller, Fiction Department Chair Randy Albers, and Fiction Writing Department Adjunct Faculty Member   Chris De Guire, the week-long series of events featuring all things literary and fun (there’ll be drinkin’, there’ll be fightin’, there’ll be fu…n!) is at about the half-way point and already the reviews are good.

Things started out with stories of love, lust, and loss at 2nd Story at Martyrs’  and raced through readings by students and faculty from nearly dawn till way past dusk. (Good thing we all remembered to change our clocks last weekend, huh?) More than fifty writing students have shared their work with our engaged and supportive city-wide audience so far (playwrights with Lisa Schlesinger today at 11) along with award-winning authors Jennifer Egan, Audrey Niffenegger, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Gerard Woodward, one of our conversationalists taking part in “Why The Short Story?” right here on this blog.

Tonight the spectacular and always entertaining Literary Rock and Roll event at the Metro with another of our conversationalists, Gina Frangello, along with the inimitable Irvine Welsh and stories by Preston Allen as read by his editor and friend, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books.

Oh, and there is so much more, friends. Panels on publishing, the future of the book, and playwriting; there’ll even be a presentation on research in the arts by an international collaboration of students from Columbia College Chicago and Bath Spa University (that’s Friday.) Tomorrow (St Patty’s Day; I always liked that holiday!) afternoon at 4 join me in conversation with various artists on a multidisciplinary panel called “Story in the Arts” with  Audrey Niffenegger; poet Tony Trigilio; filmmaker and chair of the Film and Video Department at Columbia College Chicago Bruce Sheridan; dancer and choreographer Darrell Jones; director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography Rod Slemmons; and visual artist Philip Hartigan. (There’ll be dancin’, there’ll be filmmin’, there’ll be readin’, there’ll be artin’!)

So if you haven’t yet enjoyed any part of Story Week, there’s still plenty of time and muchos events left. I’m gonna be there. You?