Thursday, March 31, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Part IV

Here is my fourth blog on Authors on the Short Story. I have my Angers presentation completed and will tell you more about it after the conference. I have one more set of Author comments, all from the introductions to the Best American Short Story volumes of the past several years. I will post those next week. I welcome any comments on these Authorial remarks, and any additions you may know that I have missed.

Donald Barthelme: “Fragments are the only forms I trust.”

Annie Proulx: “The construction of short stories calls for a markedly different set of mind than work on a novel, and for me short stories are at once more interesting and more difficult to write than longer works. The comparative brevity of the story dictates more economical and accurate use of words and images, a limited palette of events, fewer characters, tighter dialogue, strong title and punctuation that works to move the story forward.”

Grace Paley: “I really am in love with the story form, so I can’t say the novel will do something a short story can’t. I would just say they probably do something different. And I’ve never been really clear about it. Every now and then, I get an illumination of what one does that the other doesn’t, and if I’m in a classroom, it’s lucky, then I can say it to a lot of people. But then it sort of blurs for me . . . For me, somehow, the short story is very close to the poem in feeling and not so close in feeling to the novel, although it’s about the same people that a novel would be about. But what it tries to say is the poem of those lives.”

Jayne Anne Phillips: “I think that stories in reality are often circular; past and present ad future are mixed up in terms of the way we think; and the closer a story can get to that—the more completely it can represent that—the more timeless the story becomes.”

George Saunders: “The novel and the short story “are, at their origin, very different… In a novel the whole point is the little constructions along the way… A chance to describe a certain household or a certain while-travelling phenomenon. And the plot is just a way to link these together, and, in a sense justify them…. Whereas in a story the progression of the plot is what the whole machine is ultimately judged against. You can do the other things—description, dialogue, etc., but any piece that is inessential to the plot-machine (to the sense that this thing is moving forward, and along a certain thematic track) is felt as extraneous. And I am very firmly in the latter mindset.”

Wells Tower: It's very easy to write a terrible short story: you just write something and then stop. In a good short story, you are made to care for someone within a very limited space and then hopefully arrive at some explosive moment at the end, where the characters' lives are changed in some way. A good short story should rock the axis of your world.”

Joy Williams: A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the dark. The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. he wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.”

David Means: “Short stories demand a kind of intense poetic eye, and you can’t flinch. I relate stories to songs; you listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.”

Sherwood Anderson: “The life of reality is confused, disorderly, almost always without apparent purpose, whereas in the artist’s imaginative life…there is determination to give the tale…Form—to make it real to the theme, not to life. Often the better the job is done, the greater the confusion…. Would it not be better to have it understood that realism, in so far as the word means reality in life, is always bad art—although it may possibly be very good; journalism.”

Ambrose Bierce: The only way to get unity of impression from a novel is t shut it up and look at the covers.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world, imagined as a sympathetic audience (and not, as the world really is, a busy and indifferent crowd): the dream is said to be some kind of manifestation of desire, so the short story must also represent a desire, perhaps only partly expressed, but the most interesting thing about it is its mystery.”

Catherine Brady: Every good story has to risk being obscure, aimless, about nothing if it is to sustain that ‘something wild’ not within reach, not enclosed in the story because it cannot be named or identified in any single passage. . Good stories dance on the boundary line between resisting a final interpretation and resisting any interpretation at all.”

Elizabeth Taylor: “Short stories are a form of contradiction: an act of both isolation and relationship.”

Julio Cortazar: “For me the thing that signals a great story is what we might call its autonomy, the fact that it detaches itself from its author like a soap bubble blown from a clay pipe…. I think it is vanity to want to put into a story anything but the story itself.
The short-story writer knows that he can’t proceed cumulatively, that time is not his ally. His own solution is to work vertically, heading up or down in literary space.”

Anthony Burgess: The nature of a short story may have nothing to do with length…there is a kind of short story element, the short story entity, which can be accommodated to any size, that a novel of immense length can be no more than a short story in that it doesn’t present the process of change taking place in human passions. The possibility of change, yes, and the revelation that may lead to change.”

William Carlos Williams: “What are the advantages of the short story as an art form? One clear advantage as against a novel—which is its nearest cousin—is that you do not have to bear in mind the complex structural paraphernalia of a novel in writing a short story and so many dwell on the manner, the writing. On the process itself. A single stroke, uncomplicated but complete; not like a chapter or a paragraph, incomplete…. The short story in contrast to the novel stresses virtuosity as opposed to story structure… The creation of the effect, the climate, the character, by management of the pure verbal effect is paramount…. I should say that the short story consists of one single flight of the imagination, complete: up and down.”

Henry James: "A short story has to choose between being either an anecdote or a picture and can but play its part strictly according to its kind. I rejoice in the anecdote, but I revel in the picture.”

C., S. Lewis: “To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series…s only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state of quality… It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the end…. I suggest that the internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life. . In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and fond only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.”

Bernard Malamud: “The short story packs a self in a few pages predicating a lifetime.”

John Wain:” The short story is a form on its own, with its own laws and its own logic. A short story has its natural length. It isn’t trying to do the same thing as a novel. It has found staked out which is its own ground. …The short story has its own logic and its own laws, and it is not trying to be something else and failing. It is very triumphantly doing one thing. There are perfectly successful short stories, and there are totally unsuccessful ones, and there’s nothing in between”

Edith Wharton: “One of the chief obligations in a short story is to give the reader an immediate sense of security. Every phrase should be a signpost, and never (unless intentionally) a misleading one…. The least touch of irrelevance, the least chill of inattention, will instantly undo the spell, and it will take as long to weave again as to get Humpty Dumpty back on his wall. The moment the reader loses faith in the author’s sureness of foot improbability gapes…. The chief technical difference between the short story and the novel may be summed up by saying that the situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel; and it follows that the effect produced by the short story depends almost entirely on its form, or presentation.”

John Barth: “We may safely generalize that short story writers, as a class, from Poe to Paley, incline to see how much they can leave out, and novelists as a class, from Petronius to Pynchon, how much they can leave in.”

Richard Ford: “Short stories feels as though they arise out of some fierce schism that they by their very existence mean to reconcile. And fascination edging on to mystery does exist in the discrepancy between the ingenious capacity of great stories to penetrate us and our ineludible awareness of their brevity.”

Isabel Allende: “I think that in a short story the most important thing is to get the tone right in the first six lines. The tone determines the characters. In long fiction, it’s plot, its character…a lot of stuff goes in there. But in short stories, it’s tone, language, suggestions.” People think if they can write a short story then eventually they will be able to write a novel. It’s actually the other way around. If you are able to write a novel, someday with a lot of work and good luck you may be able t write a good short story”

Moira Crone: “Novels are messy and short stories are very defined. Short stories have a consistent, arguably a universally recognized form, and novels can have any number of forms. There is closure in most short stories…. Getting a short story right, and being obsessed with it until you do, is more occupying, like having an acute illness, a kind of attack.”

Richard Ford: “If stories fail, then they don’t make a short story. It’s like bread. Either it’s a loaf of bread or it’s doughy goo.”

William Faulkner: “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.”

Jack Matthews: “I don’t think the short story as a genre is insubstantial at all, just brief... It’s the narrow instrument that penetrates deepest. (That’s part true and part not — like most truths relating to labels and judgments). Also, if you love a novel, what is it, exactly, that you love? One answer would be that you love what you remember of certain scenes in it, or perhaps a specific emblematic scene, which lasts in your memory as a short story, of sorts. And it is this way with all images, of course, for an image often functions as a symbol of the narrative’s plenary meaning… A discontent with I[the short story’s] brevity does not constitute a legitimate argument. Ask a coral snake, which is as deadly as it is small.”

Sean O’Faolain: “If I had to choose one word to describe short-story language I would either say that it is engrossed, or that it is alert. What one searches for and what one enjoys in a short story is a special distillation of personality, a unique sensibility which has recognized and selected at once a subject that, above all other subjects, is of value to the writer’s temperament and to his alone.”

Mary Lavin: “I feel that it is in the short story that a writer distills the essence of his thought. I believe this because the short story shape as well as matter, is determined by the writer’s own character. Both are one. Short-story writing—for me—is only looking closer than normal into the human heart. The vagaries and contrarieties three to be fund have their own integral design.”

Barry Hannah: “Get in and get out.”


Tim Love said...

Thanks for these - they'll keep me busy for a while. I suspect you'll already raided my usual sources (I see you've noticed The Guardian's blog as well) but anyway, here are some contributions by the not-so-famous -

"the short form is particularly adept at exploring the dynamic between narrative and the urban environment. Short stories have a long tradition of depicting encounters between strangers. This intermixing invariably happens in municipal public space", Jim Hinks, "ReBerth", Comma Press, 2008

"the short story is not only closer to the epic than the novel, since chronological time cannot be fully rendered, but it is also more fully a product of the disenchanted age", Paul March-Russell, "The Short Story: An Introduction", Edinburgh UP, 2009, p.121

"a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet", Seán Ó Faoláin

Charles E. May said...

Thanks much, litrefs, for your comments and for the new author suggestion. I like the ideas of encounters between strangers and the disenchanted age, and of course the Sean O'Faolain quote is a gem.