Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Short Story Month 2017: Writers on the Short Story—Part 1

      Many authors like short stories for precisely the same reasons that many readers do not.  It should not surprise you that many writers assigned the dreaded title, “a writer’s writer”—such as Alice Munro, William Trevor, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Joy Williams, Steven Millhauser, David Means—are primarily short story writers.  And it should not also surprise you that Francine Prose’s bravely titled book of a few years ago—How to Read Like a Writer—spent much more time analyzing and praising the prose of short story writers than she did that of novelists.
      Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details.  Prose reminds us of something that modern students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences.  Many current literature students, who have been taught to read for social themes, political issues, and cultural contexts, might therefore assume that Prose’s book has been written only for creative writing students, not creative reading students.  That is an unfortunate assumption.
     In the forty years I was a teacher, I argued that the short story is a unique literary form that makes different demands on readers than its often bullying big-shouldered brother, the novel.  Often, the only ones I have found to agree with me are authors of the short story.  Perhaps, as many of you, when I was young, I wished to be a writer of the short story.  But for various reasons—lack of  storytelling talent, lack of energy, lack of nerve—I became a reader of the form instead.  Only in the last few of years of my retirement have I actually written and published a couple of short stories.  Those modest efforts do not make me a writer.  However, the process of writing them has confirmed some of the convictions I have about the form that reading thousands of them over the years has instilled in me. 
     For Short Story Month 2017, I have rummaged through forty years of notes, have read hundreds of interviews, intros, and commentaries to gather the judgments of  over100 different authors on the short story.  I have organized these characteristics into major categories.  This is the first of several I will post this month:
Do Writers Really Love the Short Story?
Julie Orringer has said that when she started out writing short stories she imagined that this was a kind of practice for a novel that was going to come later.  However, she says, “As I got farther along in my studies and in the development of my writing I became so excited about the short story as a form I ceased thinking of it and anything I wanted to do as preparation… I was happy to think that I might always work in the short story form.” 
Isabel Allende: “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 to write a good short story.”
 Truman Capote: “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.”
Annie Proulx:  “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.” 
Ron Carlson: ” I love the short story; I’d write them forever, regardless of the fact that it isn’t a particularly sharp career move.”
Stuart Dybek: “What I love about the short story is that you can jump into it where it’s already geared up at a high level, start out already in third gear and then kick it into fourth and fifth.Dan Chaon:  One of the things I love about the short story as an art form is its ability to evoke the ephemeral quality of being alive… My hope and ideal is to rescue ‘missing’ moments in time before they vanish back into the haze of daily life.”
Tim Gatreaux: “The short story, of course, is a wonderful form that I love dearly. It is a manageable form. You can work on a short story sentence by sentence almost the way you work on a poem You can make sure that the logic of the first sentence ties in with the logic of the very last. I think the short story is more of an art form, really, than the novel. I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me on that.”
Jonathan Franzen: I like stories because they leave the writer no place to hide.  There’s no yakking your way out of trouble.  I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.
Angela Carter said what she likes about the short story is how "the limited trajectory of the short narrative concentrates its meaning. Sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve in an extended narrative."

No comments: