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Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Light and Dark of Scenery and Fiction

Everything is subtle as we dip into late October. The sun does not rise with a shout but with a sigh.

Country scenery is far from monochromatic, but the quilt is quieter, somewhat faded.

I was thinking this morning about fiction and about a difference I notice between novels and short stories in the last decade--besides length, I mean. Short stories, in general, tend to be darker, bleaker, grimmer, while novels, very serious and even tragic ones, even by authors who also write short fiction, don't often maintain the dark tone throughout that is found in so many recent short story collections. Writers of short stories are frustrated because publishers and the marketplace favor novels over shorter fiction, and many explanations have been put forth, but I can't help wondering if the view of life presented, in general, in so many short stories doesn't contribute to the difficulty they have finding buyers.

Which road to take? Bravely into the dark? Lightly into the light? Down through the shadowy valley, then up toward the light? Straight or twisting and turning? Which road to take? Always a question, in any life, in any endeavor. What does it mean to choose one road rather than another?


Dawn said...

I haven't read many short stories, but I'm finding that I'm enjoying reading books of essays lately. Just finished Caroline Knapp's "The Merry Recluse."

P. J. Grath said...

I'll have to look for that one, Dawn. I love essays, too. Have ever since high school. All kinds.

Anonymous said...

Writers should write the stories they want to tell, and let the chips fall where they may. If we can get people to pay to read what we've written, so much the better!

If we can only be paid to write what other people want to read, we might as well go into advertising. It pays better. :)

P. J. Grath said...

You’ll get no argument from me on that general principle, Gerry. All artists (literary, visual, performing) have that basic choice to make (along with all the other choices they have to make!), whether to pursue their own vision or adapt their work to market demands. I get that. At the same time, I think it is naive to assume that individual artistic visions are not influenced by the times in which the artist lives--that, after all, is what makes “movements” in art and literature--and some writers may be censoring a more upbeat view of life because they think only gloom and violence are literary. I don't know. I'm just thinking about these things..

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I just re-subscribed to the "Sun" magazine. Have you ever read that independent magazine with no ads? People regularly get very angry and delete their subscription because of they perceive too much darkness in the writing. It can get very grim. I like it, though, even the darker pieces, because it feels "real" and "earthy" and discusses topics we sometimes shun to the recesses of our brains.

It seems some artists have had lives filled with lots of darkness, and others with more light. I guess we should keep sharing that with which we're familiar. But the times in which we live do affect our art.


P. J. Grath said...

Unless fiction is comedic in nature and intent--and sometimes even then the comedy can be dark--there's no keeping out of good writing the more difficult aspects of life. Purged of dark hours, a story loses believability. We wonder, "Has this writer never known pain?" Sometimes I wonder if a certain writer has ever known joy. Pain, violence, soul-searing agony I accept as part of life and part of fiction. Relentless nihilism is a road I have no interest in exploring. I spent enough time with Nietzsche!

Two thoughts occur to me, Kathy, in response to your comment. One is that it can be very surprising to meet fiction writers and find that the the darkness or lightness of their writing may have little to do with their personality. My other thought is a question, and it applies to visual art as well as to writing: What gives us the feeling that despair is more real than hope, pain more real than joy? Perhaps, as you note, it's because we often self-censor our feelings and push the dark ones to the background rather than acknowledging them.

I don't know the magazine you mention. Will ask a couple of my friends who regular write and submit short stories to magazines and journals.

A more general addition to my original thought, or maybe just a clarification: The "choice" a writer makes is not a simple two-pronged dilemma. A writer may shun the popular marketplace but fail to develop his or her own vision out of a desire for critical (i.e., noncommercial) acclaim. Might some of this be unconscious? How much of everyone's motivation is unconscious, mine included? So why wouldn't this be true of writers and their fiction moods as well?