Before getting started on a new year of essays for this blog, I ask your indulgence while I tidy up some loose ends left hanging from the old year.
1. Editing of a Few Past Blogs: I have had to make some deletions from previous blogs on some stories by Alice Munro. In my introductory essay for the collection of essays on Munro I have recently edited for EBSCO publishers, I made use of a few paragraphs from my blog entries on “Corrie,” “Gravel,” “Axis,” and “Pride.” Because my work for EBSCO is termed “proprietary content” and EBSCO retains “exclusive perpetual rights to publish that content in print and electronic form,” there seems to be some sort of conflict with my using some of my blog material in the introductory essay. To avoid any problems, I have therefore deleted paragraphs from blog entries that I used in my essay. I apologize to my blog readers for this. Because editing these entries necessitated reposting them to my blog, I temporarily turned off the program that automatically sends new postings to readers by email to avoid cluttering up their mailboxes.
I also deleted the entire entry I posted last year on Alice Munro’s “Passion”—a paper that I presented to the International Short Story Conference in Toronto in 2010—because an expanded version of that essay will appear soon in a special issue of the literary journal Narrative, published by Ohio State University. Although Narrative has not asked me to make this deletion, I wanted to avoid any conflict.
I have researched legal advice on the copyright status of the essays I have published on by blog and determined that they are protected by US copyright law. I own the essays and plan to make use of some of them in future publications. If I wish to make future use of work I have done for EBSCO or for Narrative, I will seek their permission.
2. Responses to Recent Comments: I check my “Comments” file regularly and have decided to respond to some of the most recent ones here rather than in the “Comment” box because they raise issues that I think deserve more than a brief remark.
Thanks to Stephen, Don, and Dex for their comments on my end-of-the-year blog on “Best” lists, especially my reaction to John Stanzinski's piece in P&W. I agree with Stephen that short stories are not memorable for their creation of characters, but I am not sure I agree that that they are memorable for their plot synopses or (unless they are relatively simple “what if” stories) for a “concept.” When they are memorable for a metaphor, it seems to me to be because the metaphor reveals some complex reality that cannot be satisfactorily revealed any other way. I hope to examine this character vs. metaphor issue in more detail in a later blog.
And of course, I agree with Don that when folks come up with metaphors comparing short stories and novels, they inevitably base the comparison on size, with “big” always winning over “small.” I have previously discussed the difference between the kind of “complexity” in the short story and the novel, but it is a crucial issue that needs more exploration, and I will come back to it again and again.
And thanks to my friend Dex, who suggests that it might be a good thing if MFA programs stop using the short story as a convenient teaching tool. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree that when beginning writers who think “novelistically” are forced to write short stories the result is often less than illuminating, but on the other hand I can’t help feeling that when those beginners are taught to think in large structural terms they tend to become sloppy on the sentence level.
“Barebullmoose” was kind enough to respond to my blog on Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”; thank you. As far as I know, when “Train Dreams” was released as a single volume, it was not expanded from the version that appeared in Best American Short Stories; I think rather that the publisher simply used large type and lots of space. “Barebullmoose” notes that a “Pet Peeve” is when he or she reads a story and later finds out that it is a chapter in a novel, concluding, “I also maintain that if a chapter of a novel can stand alone as a viable short story, then how good can that novel possibly be?” I have discussed this “stand-alone story” vs. chapter in a novel issue before, but once again, it is an important issue that I need to explore further. I would phrase “Barebullmoose’s” question differently: “If a story is a chapter in a novel, how good can the story be?”
In a response to my blog on E. T.A. Hoffmann’s “New Year’s Eve Adventure,” “readersquest” asks me if I know the origins of the “body-soul” dichotomy in Hoffmann. If there is a primal origin of the dichotomy, I would suggest it might be what Mircea Eliade describes as the primitive human distinction between the “sacred and the profane”—in which the profane is the world of everyday practical experience, while the sacred is the world of that human sense of there being some reality other than that on which we stub our toe. It has always been my opinion that the short story is more apt to deal with the “sacred,” whereas the novel is more apt to focus on the “profane.”
In a “Comment” on my Best American Short Stories: 2011 blog, “anonymous” asks me if I have read Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child. Yes, I have, but I am afraid I did not like them as much as “anonymous does.” Here is my conclusion to my review of that book: “Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child is a textbook example of what often results when an interesting and entertaining novelist writes short stories: pleasurable, but perfectly ordinary, plot-based stories with a concluding twist, featuring likeable but relatively simple characters whose problems the plots resolve rather neatly. Those who like novels will find these stories completely satisfying. Those who like short stories will like them, but they won’t be haunted by them, and they won’t feel the need to read them again. But perhaps that’s less the difference between novels and short stories than it is the difference between popular and literary fiction.” This issue of “popular” vs. “literary” fiction is one to which I will return in a blog later this month.
In a Comment on my blog on Alice Munro’s recent “Dear Life,” “Anonymous asks whether the piece is “fiction or nonfiction.” Well, if the question is, did the event Munro describes happen or not happen? Then I reckon it did happen. However, I suspect anonymous’ question is more complex than that. I don’t think the issue is whether Munro “made up” some of the details in the piece. The real question may be: What transforms an event into a story? And the answer is not simply dependent on “what really happened?” Once again, this is an issue that I hope to return to later.
Thanks to Aaron Riccio for his “Comment” on my blog on Entertainment vs. Literary stories back in October, especially my discussion of David Means’ story “El Morro.” Aaron, who did not care for the Means story, concludes, “What it boils down to, for me, is having something to grab onto, and authors like Means seem to go to an overly literary place, to the extent such that they obfuscate rather than reveal.” However, Aaron also notes that this may be his initial gut reaction to the story and that he will perhaps return to writers like Means later, noting that he wants “to understand how I could so totally hate their earlier work, but if I'm not making a connection, I'm simply not making a connection.” This gets to the problem of whether some stories need to be read more than once. I will come back to this issue in a blog later this month.
Thanks to “trodbarne” for a comment on my emphasis on “spirituality” in the short story. “trodbarne” says, “I feel there is an acute confusion around spiritual things these days--which I guess places them appropriately into the hands of story writers.” I agree and will come back to the issue of spirituality in the form again. And in response to “trodbarne’s” suggestion that I might think of some title for my book like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: Although I occasionally reread my tattered little paperback of Strunk and White, I do not plan to emphasize the traditional elements of plot, voice, point of view, etc. Finally, I appreciate “trodbarne’s” request that I focus on contemporary writers rather than the “classics,” for indeed although I will talk about some of the masterpieces of the genre in the book and what makes them great, I do plan to focus primarily on recent writers.
Thanks to all the others who wrote comments congratulating me on the third anniversary of my blog and encouraging me on the new book. Thanks especially to Sandra Rouse, Alisa Cox, Loree Westron, Ann Graham, Joe Melia, and my lovely daughter-in-law Ean May for suggestions about the title of the book.
Well, now it is time to get down to work. I hope never to stop learning about the power of “story,” and I trust I will never tire of sharing what I learn with others. Thanks so much for your support. May 2012 be a most fulfilling year for you!