Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Some Short Story Writers Don't Want to Write Novels

Well, this is interesting.  Last week I opened the LA Times and was caught by this headline:  PERFECTING THE SHORT-STORY FORM. It’s not a line I often see in the LA Times or any other newspaper, for that matter.  The piece, one of a regular feature called “Jacket Copy,” was by LA novelist and journalist, Hector Tobar, who reviews books regularly for the Times now.

Tobar referred to a recent piece on the “Gawker” blog by Adrian Chen, urging writer George Saunders to get off his butt and write a novel.  When I checked “Gawker,” I saw that Chen was chastising Saunders in response to a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Joel Lovell who rhapsodizes that “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”

To which, Adrian Chen retorts, if Saunders is so damned great, why hasn’t he written a novel?  Chen asserts, “the novel is the Super Bowl of fiction writing, and any fiction writer who hasn’t written one is going to be relegated to runner-up in the annals of literary history.”   (One wonders if Chen has ever read Jorge Borges or Anton Chekhov.)  He says that those poor writers who have never written a novel may be fan favorites and heroes to MFA students and “connoisseurs of literature,” like Raymond Carver or Alice Munro, for example, but, Chen insists, “without a novel there’s no chance a fiction-writer can reach the story of Pop, era-defining status Lovell imagines for Saunders.”

Chen rants on that “literary types” have a “peculiar fetish for the short story writer: “Short fiction is the Hard Stuff--pure uncut stories prized by real literature heads,” snorts Chen, concluding with added scorn, that the excessive praise heaped on short-story writers seems patronizing: “like an out of town guest struggling to compliment a New Yorker’s cramped and overpriced apartment: ‘look how much you’ve done with so little space.’”

Hector Tobar scolds Chen for the childishness of his remarks, arguing that Saunders has not written a novel because he is a “prose perfectionist...because he’s unwilling to write a mediocre page. Because he likes the control the short-story form gives him.” Tobar say that to write a novel, every once in a while “your prose, for lack of a better word, is going to be more prosaic than it would be otherwise.”  He says the reason for this is that to get a reader to make it through a novel, you have to have that “chunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot,” the creation of which often hides your weaknesses as a writer. 

Tobar concludes that a successfully short story writer “can’t get away with crafting two or three mediocre paragraphs.”  He argues that George Saunders is “building perfect, if smaller constructions, with nary a wasted word.”

I agree with what Tobar suggests is a real distinction between the short story and the novel.  The important question for me is what other important generic/thematic/stylistic distinctions are there between the two forms that give rise to (or result from) this authorial attention to style on the microcosmic level of sentence rather than the macrocosmic level of plot. 

I have read Saunders first three collections of stories--CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and Persuasion Nation—and agree with Joel Lovell that Saunders is a “writer’s writer”—a kiss-of-death term often loaded on short-story writers. 

I have just received a copy of Saunder’s new collection, The Tenth of December and will comment on it in the next couple of weeks.  I also picked up a copy of Saunder’s collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone and will comment on some of his essays that focus on fiction.

Chen may be right that the only folks who really love short stories are other writers of short stories and those “literary types” who appreciate the writer’s attention to language rather than just plot.  But that attention to language may result in something more universally important than what “nonliterary types” like Chen might scorn as mere aestheticism.  Lovell says in his New York Times piece that Saunders once told him his aim in his fiction was to “soften the borders between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer.” Lovell believes that Saunders’ writing “makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people.”

Chen retorts, “if Saunders can literally make the world a better place then he needs to write a novel and get Oprah to talk about it on TV and put it into the hands of as many of the sad but nobly struggling people who are the subjects of so many of his stories as possible.”

In my own opinion, a better solution would not be to urge George Saunders and other short-story writers to write novels, but rather to urge more readers to read short stories.    And God help us if we have to wait for Oprah, in her wisdom, to tell us what to read.


Anonymous said...

Aha! The ball drops, I understand now!

Last week, Saunders was a guest on Colbert for what I thought was a great interview (if you're not familiar with Stephen Colbert, he plays a "willfully ignorant" character, and sometimes his interviews go astray if guests aren't prepared). The prime question – the only question, really – was "Why don't you write novels?"

Zin mentioned the interview on Zoetrope, and apparently there was significant disappointment in the five-minute spot – five minutes – because the stories themselves weren't discussed. I was a bit disappointed myself, since I think Stephen-in-character could've done a lot with Semplica Girls.

But now I get it. I figured this was the typical "ignorant" Stephen asking the question since short story collections are famous as being tough to sell. Now I realize, it was a topical question, following up on this article you cite. That's Stephen – he's brilliant when acting ignorant.

Thanks for connecting the dots for me!

I focus on short stories - I have to force myself to read novels - but I'm always odd one out. ;)


Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Karen, for directing me to the interview. I just watched it and found Saunders engaging, Colbert funny, and even heard a few very nice comments about the short story as a form. Can't really ask for more than that, I reckon, on the tube.

Hayley N. Jones said...

I agree with you! I don't understand why some people see short stories as a "lesser" form - it's like comparing a single, perfect flower to a garden. Each other different pleasures, in addition to similar pleasures. I think short stories need to be promoted more to readers: I know many non-writers who have expressed an interest in reading more short stories/short story collections, but they don't know where to start or simply don't notice collections when shopping for books. I have put a lot of effort into finding short stories partly because I love writing them as well as reading, and I don't know whether I would have tried so hard if I was just a reader.

Hayley N. Jones said...

* offer different pleasures! Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Hayley - the "conventional wisdom" is that the only people who read short stories are writers, and they like them because that's how writing is generally taught. Everyone else associates them with Eighth Grade English.

Well, May is National Short Story Month, which gets something of a to-do amongst bloggers, and I've already emailed my Fiercely Independent Community Bookseller asking if they'd like to do some kind of thing with short stories, offering readings, parties, suggestions, presentations by those who love short stories, an evangelical approach. Because I think you're right, people don't know where to start. They read a short story, maybe in TNY, and never read another one. If people had resources to find the kinds of short stories they like, they might enjoy them more, and those of us who read a lot of them could be helpful.

Of course, the bookstore hasn't emailed me back yet... :( But it's only February.


Nyasha said...

A nice post! That's a good point and I think short stories need more exposure. Even though there are some writers who would rather write short stories than novels, sometimes the less is better.

This probably doesn't relate much to your site but I wonder if you can do a feature post on the site, ReadWave and perhaps the founders, Rob and Raoul?

I would be very grateful if you could get back to me on my blog (the link is there if you click my name) or by email: