I. Revisiting an Old Question
A while back -- and not for the first time -- I was musing on the difference between novels and short stories. I revert to this subject again and again, in part because so many modern fiction readers avoid short stories like the plague, and, as a bookseller, I’m always trying to figure out why.
So many gifted writers work in short forms, and you’d think that, with busy schedules and multiple demands on limited time, readers would embrace the short story eagerly. Such is not my experience as a bookseller, however, and it is not, with a few outstanding exceptions, the experience of most writers trying to place short story collections, either. I’ve heard writers blame agents and publishers for treating novelists like stars and fending off short story collections, but agents want what they can sell to publishers, and publishers want what the public will buy. The question is why short stories are such a hard sell. Because they are. So I’m continually looking at the forms themselves for clues to an answer.
What I came up with in my last musing session was that a short story is more like a movie, a novel more like a long television series. Clearly, that distinction (whether you buy it or not) is made from the reader/viewer’s point of view, but it hardly solves the avoidance problem, since very few watchers of series programs avoid movies. I guess my distinction gave a pitch for stories (“Try them!”) rather than answering the question I’d posed.
The brilliant fiction writer Bonnie Jo Campbell, in a recent interview, gave as analogy to the short story/novel distinction the contrast between dating and marriage.
No need to be honest or consistent or thorough on a date—just be interesting. Mysterious is good on a date.
Flash fiction, she adds, is like a one-night stand. Campbell sees the short story reader as taking a brief dip into “a magical world of suspended disbelief,” easily entered, easily left behind (a date), unlike the experience of being immersed in a novel (committed to marriage).
Well, as good as that sounds, I wonder. I believe in the characters and situations of good short stories as much as those in good novels. They feel very real to me. Besides that, short stories can have downright haunting power. (Campbell’s are definitely haunting!) Continuing to push on her analogy, I’d say that even a one-night stand can be a life-changer, for better or for worse. (“Novels can brilliant, life-changing.”) “Trailing the novel’s blood” into your real life after you lay the book down? A reader coming to the last page of a short story has no guarantee she will not trail its blood through her real life for days and weeks to come! Exiting the world of the short story does not necessarily mean leaving it behind, since that world can enter the reader and inhabit the heart and mind in a most disturbing way long after the book has been closed.
II. Stumbling Upon a Path
“By appointment or chance” is a good description of my reading life. Our reading circle discussions, review copies, long-awaited books by favorite authors: all of these might be called reading by appointment. The vast majority of my reading, however, falls into the “by chance” category, especially since the majority of books in my bookshop are used volumes. Chance is a lovely feature of life! While a planned experience may disappoint or exceed expectations, the chance encounter carries no baggage. A book comes to hand. I open it and begin to read. Either I set it aside or continue. Not much lost either way.
[Digression. This is for authors and publishers, something I have learned in my years as a bookseller. The cover of a book must say “Pick me up!” The open book in hand must say, “Don’t put me down!” I told this to Bonnie Jo Campbell, and she urged me to write it somewhere, so here it is, and now it's yours to do with what you will.]
And so, not long ago, into my hands came a little volume called The Reaper Essays. The Reaper was a journal not of but about poetry. Criticism, that is. In the journal two writers (both poets themselves), Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell, created a persona from which to expound their views on modern poetry.
Most fundamentally, they decried the absence of narrative, and they were nothing if not prescriptive. The first of their ten demands (“How to Write Narrative Poetry: A Reaper Checklist”) was for a poem to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Just as it is hard to get the whole story, it is hard to allow a story to tell itself. Poets become enamored of a segment, an anecdote, and are content with nothing more. When this occurs, like the detached tail of a lizard, the story just wriggles and dies.
That, you understand, is a prescription for narrative poetry and criticism of modern poetry the authors see as failing, from two writers. Their view is not the view of the literary majority of critics (and how would it pertain to something like haiku?), but it can hardly be dismissed as uninteresting, uninformed, or incoherent. The entire book of essays is one I recommend to any writer of poetry or prose. Agree of disagree, you will find food for thought.
Okay, now fast forward a couple of days, when my new issue of New York Review of Books (January 14, 2016) arrives and turn to a review by Charles Baxter of a new volume of short stories, Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, by Joy Williams. Baxter examines the short fiction in Williams’s book through the lens of Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, first published in book form (earlier O’Connor gave lectures on the subject) in 1963. Baxter seems to agree with O’Connor’s claim that “we do not identify with most short-story characters.” (I’m not sure about that, but for the sake of argument....) O’Connor believed short fiction to be, as O’Connor puts it, “a more private art than that of the novel,” its characters “more solitary, isolated, and uncommunicative,” the main feeling delivered, therefore, that of loneliness.
Baxter goes from there to the stories in Visiting Privilege, narratives he finds thriving on
...impulsive action that comes out of nowhere, that is unpremeditated, unplanned, and unconsidered and is therefore inexplicable.
Baxter notes that short stories don’t have time to develop lengthy histories.
But if you cut out much of a character’s history, you also cut out much of his motivation for action. ...[W]ith the contraction of narrative time, and with the character’s past chopped off and a possible future truncated or missing altogether, the protagonist simply acts, going from here to there without entirely grasping why she did what she did and often having no idea of how she ended up where she is now. She experiences the tyranny of the present presiding over an obliterated past.
I should confess that I have not yet read any fiction by Joy Williams. I will in the near future. My interest today, however, is the way her stories are characterized by Charles Baxter.
A few years ago I devoted a winter to writing fiction and achieved a complete draft of what I called a “cycle” of ten short stories (still homeless, by the way) linked by a common setting. More than one reader was intrigued and pleased while reading individual stories but ultimately frustrated by not having any answer to the question, “Then what happens?” I felt the question was unfair. These were short stories, not novel summaries!
But now, having read Jarman & McDowell, and in the wake of chewing over the Baxter review, looking back over my own short story collection and what I still think of as the most successful poem I ever wrote (that's my opinion and perhaps only mine) and recalling conversations with bookstore customers who shook their heads and told me, “I don’t like short stories,” I think I’m finally getting a handle on what frustrates modern readers about the short story form.
III. My Tentative, Perhaps Temporary “Conclusion”
In terms of narrative, a modern short story is all middle.
The reader of a modern short story is plunged willy-nilly into a situation, shoved up against strange, unfamiliar characters, shaken up and spun around, and then left by the side of the road. Some short fictional encounters are gentler, and some much more violent, but the common denominator, I believe, is absence of beginning and end. That is, introduction to character or characters and resolution to the situation are equally lacking.
Metaphorically, if not actually, in a short story someone we know nothing about has been tied up and thrown in the water. We see a flailing about, a struggle to survive. We begin to fear. And then the lights go out, and the curtain comes down. How did the character come to be in this situation? Will he or she survive? How? We have no idea.
Let me be clear. Please! I am not faulting the modern short story or saying that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. It is what it is, as the young people say, and a raw slice of fictional life can be insightful as well as brilliant. I would not wish the best of our modern short story writers to abandon what they do or tailor their work into something else. What I’m going back to, yet again, is my question (which is really only one question but can be phrased many different ways) about audience: Why is the audience for short stories not larger? Why do more people not read short stories? Why do so many readers consciously avoid short fiction?
We are – and we are constantly told that we are – story-telling animals. “Tell me a story” is the child’s constant refrain. Finding meaning to one’s life is largely a matter of being able to see one’s life as a coherent story. Every culture is shaped by its stories.
In so many ways, the cutting edge of modern Western culture has left telos behind. Science concerns itself with how and no longer asks why. Evolution, we are told, is not purposeful but blind. Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood will not be coming back out of the woods. And yet the yearning of our species for the “whole story” remains. We would not be satisfied to wake with no memory and to live with no vision of a future, and that dramatic, narrative arc -- from beginning to end -- is clearly what readers continue to hunger for in fiction, however that hunger may be characterized as unsophisticated by those on the cutting edge.
Perhaps we can do without a fictional beginning more easily than we can sacrifice the end. Plunge us directly into the story with the first sentence, and we’ll find our way. That works. What’s hard is that being left on the side of the road with no words of parting. It is not a question of authors manipulating endings to satisfy readers, either, because a manipulated end is as unsatisfying as or worse than no end at all.
Again, I am neither criticizing nor prescribing but simply trying to understand what is missing in the short story experience for so many readers, and I think I’ve finally hit upon it. What do you think? I really want to know!
But now, in closing, to veer into prescription, I still encourage readers to be adventurous and try the short story experience! When you travel, you wouldn’t turn down interesting street food because it isn’t a five-course meal, would you? Or, if a different analogy will better serve my purpose, don’t expect the short story to be a trip from Point A to Point B. Think of it instead as an exciting carnival ride – frightening and exhilarating at the same time.