Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Figure of the Author in the Short Story Conference--Issues

It is my honor to have been invited to be the plenary speaker at the conference, “The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English,” April 8 and 9, 2011, in Angers, France. The conference will be co-hosted by the CRILA short story research group (Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires en Langue Anglaise) of the Université d’Angers and Edge Hill University, England. Primary organizers for each group are: Michelle Ryan-Sautor, of The Journal of the Short Story in English at Angers, and Ailsa Cox, of Short Story in Theory and Practice at Edge Hill. The website address for the conference is:

I will be speaking on the topic of why writers like short stories better than readers do. I will be posting my progress on this keynote presentation over the next two months, focusing on issues involving the relationship of the author to the short story form.

The first two issues I intend to explore were suggested to me by two of my readers—Cathy and Dex.

Issue 1. Do young writers write short stories rather than novels, not because they like the form, but because the workshop format of universities compels them to write short stories? If university workshops disappeared, would the short story disappear also? Do writers move away from the short story to the novel as soon as possible because (a) they like novels better or (b) because novels are the only fiction that makes money? Why didn’t Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, or Andre Dubus write novels? Why do Alice Munro and David Means not write novels? Why does William Trevor keep writing short stories?

Cathy has posted a piece on The Millions at http://www.themillions.com/2011/01/the-story-problem-10-thoughts-on-academias-novel-crisis.html in which she argues that most fiction workshop instructors use the short story rather than the novel as the primary pedagogical tool because it is a more manageable form for both student and instructor: The student gets an immediate reward for a completed job, and it is easier for the instructor to critique a short work than a long one. The result, Cathy says, is that a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that really want to be novels, but novels are discouraged from being writing, for the rhythm of school semesters and quarters encourages writing small things, not large things. She concludes: “Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?”

It’s an interesting argument and has received a number of responses on The Millions. I recommend it to you. I responded to Cathy as follows:
“I agree with you, of course, that fiction workshops in MFA programs are more conducive to the short story than to the novel. But I am sure you would agree that the short story does not differ from the novel merely, or even primarily, in terms of length, but rather in terms of technique--i.e. language use, thematic focus, emphasis on the ending, importance of unity, etc. etc. all that familiar stuff. I tend to think that a writer trained in the writing of the short story has a better chance of writing a good novel than a writer trained in the writing of a novel has of writing a good short story. What do you think? I am working on a keynote presentation at a short story conference in Angers, France in April on the topic of why I think short story writers like short stories more than readers do. Sometimes I think writers write short stories because they love the form, but write novels because they have a better chance of publishing them, because readers (and therefore publishers) like novels better than they do short stories.

Cathy kindly replied:
Questions I'm asking myself:

--Some people are saying the short story is a better pedagogical tool, better way to teach craft, because young writers aren't "ready" or mature enough to attempt a novel. Well, then does that mean George Saunders and Alice Munro and Andre Dubus are immature?
--What would happen if the taxonomy of creative writing programs (undergrad and grad) with regards to prose was governed not by genre but by form? Short-form Prose WORKSHOPS (where the essay and short story are studied and emulated) and Long-Form Prose STUDIOS, where process is emphasized over product.
And, rightly, you ask about the practicalities of the publishing market, where novels are preferred, how much that is driving this discussion. As someone who is working on her first novel (not a novel in stories, not a nonfiction novel), I ask myself that question often. Am I writing this book for the right reasons?

I hope Cathy and I can talk more about these issues. I certainly do not think that such writers as George Saunders, Alice Munro, and Andre Dubus (not to mention Raymond Carver, William Trevor, David Means, and many others) wrote short stories because they were not “mature” enough to write novels. Indeed, why they continued to write short stories when their publishers probably begged them to write novels is something I intend to explore as I prepare my Angers presentation during the next two months.

Issue 2: Craft vs. Passion—Are these contradictory characteristics in fiction? Can you have messiness and careful control at the same time in fiction? Are short stories too often too well crafted? Is the messiness of many novels more like “real life”? Is it the task of fiction to mirror “real life” with all its messiness?
My friend Dex sent me a recent review of Charles Baxter’s collection Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. The review, by Bart Schneider, was laudatory, but ended with this paragraph:
“Readers will find much to admire in this collection by one of our best storytellers. If I have one criticism, it’s that the stories often wind down in tasteful denouements that come across more as elegant triumphs of craft than satisfying conclusions. The fact that a generation of MFA students have mastered that method inevitably colors my view. As many of the stories drew to a close, I found myself wishing for a bit more messiness, a bit more passion.”

Dex asked me what I thought about Schneider’s comments about passion, messiness, and the MFA story.
As everyone who is kind enough to read this blog well knows, I cannot resist it when someone asks me “what do you think about….?” And I have thought about the issue of craft vs. passion, tight control vs. messiness, and whether the short story can be taught in an MFA program ever since I have been teaching the form. The issue has a history as long as the reach of Edgar Allan Poe, who was the first champion of the short story as a form and the first champion of tight artistic control. I will be coming back to this issue in the next couple of months as I prepare my Angers presentation.

And speaking of a writer who insists on continuing to write short stories, in spite of the accusation that short stories are for the beginning, immature writer, the January 31 issue of The New Yorker has a new story by Alice Munro, entitled “Axis.” I have read it once and plan to read it twice more before posting something about it next week. I guess by this time, Munro’s book publishers have given up trying to talk her into writing a novel.


Ean McCrystal May said...

Charles...this is really interesting. I look forward to reading more about why authors enjoy writing the short story vs. readers preferring novels. Wish I could hear you speak at the conference in France!

Ann Graham said...

Can't wait to read more! Thanks!

For what it's worth. I am in love with the short story form; I do not have an MFA in creative writing and have only been through a workshop process once at Squaw Valley.

Antonya Nelson wrote an interesting essay in Glimmer Train's Writer's Ask, issue 47, comparing novels and short stories.

My blog entry: http://authoranngraham.blogspot.com/2010/03/read-antonya-nelsons-essay-story-v.html

Anonymous said...

When you say writers have a better chance of publishing novels rather than short stories, you are talking about book publication, right? A lot of writers never get to that level--or are never able to remain there long. These writers sort of live their lives in middling literary magazines and university reviews where editors are more worried about what is "good" than they are about making profits. Book publishers--if my two favorite novelists are any indication--aren't interested in short stories until the writers can produce good sales. After all, they are in business. Anyway, getting novels published isn't as simple as you imply or I infer you imply. I hope you do regular posting from France. Dex

Charles E. May said...

Dex, always good to hear from you. I know that novels are not easy to place; I just meant that relatively speaking, it is easier to get a novel published than a collection of short stories, and even then the writer usually has to promise a novel to come. My real interest, of course, is why readers don't like to read short stories. I think part of the issue is the division between popular short stories and literary short stories. There used to be more popular short stories published in Saturday Evening Post, so-called women's slick magazines, pulps, etc. That market seems to have pretty much disappeared. That only leaves literary stories, and the audience for literary stories, like the audience for poetry, has never been very large. The very fact that short stories have got a reputation as being "literary" has perhaps reduced the market for them. Does that make sad sense?

Charles E. May said...

Ann, I cannot find the Antonya Nelson Glimmer Train essay you refer to. If you have a copy online, could you send it to me. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a much needed blog. I'm hoping you can help me find a short story. Here's the plot: a man goes to a vaction abroad with his wife and 2 children. The parents are mostly getting stoned and they sober up when they realize they've forgotten their daughter at a local grocery. Thanks for your help and good luck with your presentation.

shing Lin yoong said...

Hello Charles,

Regarding the section Craft vs Passion-
'Are short stories too often too well crafted? Is the messiness of many novels more like “real life”? Is it the task of fiction to mirror “real life” with all its messiness?'.
Do you agree that short stories are often too well crafted, and more so than the novel? As I am of the thought that the word restriction in the short story can inadvertently liberate the writer as s/he dares to improvise etc etc as Julio Cortazar explains-

'...It’s like improvising in jazz. You don’t ask a jazz musician, “But what are you going to play?” He’ll laugh at you. He has a theme, a series of chords he has to respect, and then he takes up his trumpet or his saxophone and he begins. It’s not a question of idea. He performs through a series of different internal pulsations. Sometimes it comes out well, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the same with me. I’m a bit embarrassed to sign my stories sometimes. The novels, no, because the novels I work on a lot; there’s a whole architecture. But my stories, it’s as if they were dictated to me by something that is in me, but it’s not me who’s responsible. Well, since it does appear they are mine even so, I guess I should accept them!'

I definitely agree that the short story is as Poe stated- a tightly concentrated form but I'm not sure if I agree that the novel is 'messier'(why is it perceived as messier also?) and therefore closer to 'real life'. I think that is wholly dependent on the success of the storytelling, or maybe other decisions made by the author? I was wondering what you thought of Cortazar's opposing view?

Thank you again for providing such stimulating material for your readers. Going slowly through your archive is a pleasure! And I hope you don't mind me picking at your very much admired brain!