Monday, February 7, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Paris Review Interviews: Part II

This completes my survey of the Paris Review Interviews. I plan to collect more author comments on the short story from interviews and essays in a later post. My goal is to synthesize all these comments to discover if there are significant unifying author notions about the form.

Donald Barthelme, 1981
The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one.

How does “form” arrive at, or discover, or create, “truth”? Barthelme’s notion seems to be based on the postmodernist assumption that reality is a process rather than a product, that is, reality is a construct, a fiction, not some “stuff” that you stub your toe on, regardless of Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone. The focus of formalism has always been on “how” rather than some dubious “what.” The short story, it seems to me, has, since Poe, always been more concerned with process rather than product, with formal unity rather than mimesis.
Erskine Caldwell, 1982
[To transform a simple incident into a story] you get a kind of fever, I suppose, mentally and emotionally, that lifts you up and carries you away. You have to sustain this energy you’ve gotten to write your story. By the time you’ve finished, all your energy, your passion, is spent. You’ve been drained of everything.
James Salter, 1993
Above all, [the short story] must be compelling. You’re sitting around the campfire of literature, so to speak, and various voices speak up out of the dark and begin talking. With some, your mind wanders or you doze off, but with others you are held by every word. The first line, the first sentence, the first paragraph, all have to compel you. Further, I think, it should be memorable. It must have significance.
Grace Paley, 1992
There’s an equal amount of adherence to craft in both [poetry and the short story]. I would say that I went to school to study poetry, that’s how I learned to write. I got my courage for the way I write stories from first writing poems. … Still, there’s always that first storytelling impulse: I want to tell you something . . .
Harold Brodkey, 1991
There are about nine hundred million aphorisms about writing that are true, and one of them comes from Bill Maxwell—all short stories should be written in a sitting. As I understood it, that meant that you could spend weeks, months, years writing drafts, outlines, notes, sections, but sooner or later you ought to take all that and sit down and write a draft in a sitting, in a single flight—which might take days or weeks but without interruptions—so that the broad elements and the nuances cohere, certain echoes, certain resonances fit together, and there is real motion in the narrative—not a false motion linguistically grafted onto the story. Words have a strangely changeable, contingent kind of meaning, and as T. S. Eliot said in one of his famous essays, the music of language carries more of the realer meaning than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.
Julio Cortezar, 1984
It’s like improvising in jazz…. 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.

Paley refers to something more common to short story writers than novelists—what she calls the “storytelling impulse.” This probably stems from the short story’s debt to oral storytelling. Many short story writers, like Caldwell, for example, talk about a “kind of fever,” a compulsion to tell the story; this perhaps has something to do with the kind of event that storytellers feel compelled to tell, as well as the obsessive sense of unity of the short story. Salter seems to suggest that the compulsion of the teller to tell is matched by the compelling nature of the story. Salter also is right, I think, to suggest that the story must have “significance”; it cannot just be “something that happened.” Brodkey’s citation of Maxwell’s notion that the story should be written in “one sitting,” one “single flight,” has been echoed by may writers and speaks to the sense of unity that the short story requires. Cortezar’s sense that the short story possesses him is related to this notion of compulsive unity.
Raymond Carver, 1983
Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another. That end is good in and of itself, I think. But changing things through fiction, changing somebody's political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no…. It doesn't have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that's taken in reading something that's durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.
William Trevor, 1989
I think [the short story] is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art….. I like the inkling, the shadow, of a new short story. I like the whole business of establishing its point, for although a story need not have a plot it must have a point. I’m a short-story writer, really, who happens to write novels. Not the other way around.
Nadine Gordimer, 1983
Short stories are a wonderful discipline against overwriting. You get so used to cutting out what is extraneous.
Peter Taylor, 1987
The short-story writer is concerned with compression, with saying as much as he can in a short space, just as the poet is. So he has to choose the right dramatic moment for the presentation. If he can do that in writing a story, he can have as big a canvas as he would with a novel. That’s the genius of the short-story writer—finding precisely the right moment in the vital interplay between the characters.

Carver, a short story writer rather than a novelist (and not just because he did not have the time to write novels) reminds us that the short story does not have “to do anything,” does not have to have a social message (although it may have moral meaning). As I have noted before, the short story has never been concerned with social/political ideas. I like Carver’s notion of the writer’s “fierce pleasure” and the reader’s appreciation of something beautiful in and of itself, that has a steady glow. Eudora Welty talks about this idea of a “glow” of the short story, as does Joseph Conrad. Trevor, who admits that he is a short-story writer first, who just happens to write novels, emphasizes that the short story, unlike life, or the novel that tries to imitate life, excludes “meaninglessness.” Borges has talked about this “essential” nature of the short story. And Trevor, like Salter, reminds us that a short story must have “significance,” must have a “point.” Peter Taylor, another short-story writer who happened to write novels, talks about “compression” in the same way that Trevor talks about excluding meaninglessness. And, as Gordimer says, short stories urge the writer to exclude the extraneous. And what is extraneous? Everything that is meaningless.
V.S. Pritchett, 1990
The short story appealed to me straight away because of its shortness, and I preferred it to the novel. It represents a certain vision of reality that consists of isolating the incident. The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.
Russell Banks, 1998
[The short story and the novel] are very discontinuous. For me, they each bear greatly different relations to time. The novel, I think, has a mimetic relation to time. The novel simulates the flow of time, so once you get very far into a novel, you forget where you began—just as you do in real time. Whereas with a short story the point is not to forget the beginning. The ending only makes sense if you can remember the beginning. I think the proper length for a short story is to go as far as you can without going so far that you have forgotten the beginning.
Richard Ford, 1996
Novels are a lot harder to write [than short stories]…because they hold so much more stuff, and the stuff all has to be related and make one whole—at least the way I do it. And from my experience with writing both, I do think writing a long novel is just a larger human effort than writing a book of short stories—assuming that both are good. I used to say that a novel was a more important, a grander literary gesture than a story. And when Ray Carver would hear me say that he’d vigorously disagree, and then I’d always cave in. …. Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.
Mario Vargas Llosa, 1990
I think the novel as a genre tends toward excess. It tends towards proliferation; the plot develops like a cancer. If the writer follows a novel’s every lead, it becomes a jungle. The ambition to tell the whole story is inherent in the genre. Although I’ve always felt there comes a moment when you have to kill the story so it won’t go on indefinitely, I also believe that storytelling is an attempt to reach that ideal of the “total” novel.

Pritchett argues that the short story has a different vision of reality than the novel, which involves “isolating the incident.” George Lukacs has also talked about the difference between detail that describes and detail that is integrated into the significance of the story. Banks echoes Poe’s notion about the story being just so long that the ending keeps the beginning in sight. With the novel, you can forget where you began; with the short story, you cannot. Ford thinks that novels are harder to write, but only because they contain more “stuff.” The short story has never been as interested in “stuff” as the novel; the short story is only interested in “stuff” that is transformed or transcended into significance. Flannery O’Connor talks a great deal about this. Llosa, like Ford, reminds us that the novel is omnivorous, constantly devouring stuff, or perhaps spewing out “stuff.” The ultimate novel would be one that contains all the “stuff” of the world. The ultimate short story would be one that eliminates everything but essential meaning—“Blake’s “the world in a grain of sand.”

Amy Hempel, 2003
I don’t like having anything spelled out. Of course, mystery is not vagueness. Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. Tim O’Brien used to say that stories are not explanations. Certainly if you teach writing you see that some students think they are. They feel they haven’t made their point clearly enough so near the end of the story there will come an extremely spelled-out emblematic section. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.
Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence…. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence
Lorrie Moore, 2001
[The short story is] a more magical form. Who knows sometimes where stories come from? They are perhaps more attached to the author’s emotional life and come more out of inspiration than slogging. You shouldn’t write without inspiration—at least not very often. As I’ve already said, in discussing writing one shouldn’t set the idea of inspiration aside and speak only of hard work. Of course writing is hard work—or a very privileged kind of hard work. A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. A novel is a job. (Story writers working on a novel are typically in pain through the entire thing.) But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.
There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.

Annie Proulx, 2009
I think the short story is a superior form. It’s definitely more difficult than writing a novel, and a novella is an unwieldy length. The challenge is to make something that could be a novel but that works better as a short story, and to know the difference. So yeah, some stories could have been stretched out into a novel, but they would have been weaker and certainly not as interesting to write.
The short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. It can be a powerful reading experience. One can go back to a good one over and over and always learn something new about technique. I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literally short and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two.

Amy Hempel echoes many short story writers, particularly Flannery O’Connor, on mystery and the short story. I will come back to this later. I have written about it in some detail in another place. I will also come back to Lorrie Moore’s notion about the paradox that the busier people are the less time they have to read short stories, for it gets to the heart of my central idea that short story writers like short stories more than readers do. Annie Proulx is surely right that the short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. And she is surely right that the general reading public has no idea about what goes into a short story (and therefore does not know how to read short stories, thus often underestimating them).


Constant Writer said...

Short stories get left out of the literary discussion so often, and some of the best stories are short rather than novel length. Top 3 that come to mind immediately, The Tell Tale Heart, Bartleby The Scrivener, and The Queen of Spades (Pushkin). It doesn't get much better than that just because it's a hundred times longer.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, constant writer. Indeed, three great stories.