Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated

To my great surprise, this week's celebration of the short story (at the Festival of the Short Story at Luminato, in conversation and in the press), has contained a great deal of defensiveness and/or (depending on the speaker/writer) mourning for the form, which is apparently/allegedly (depending on the future, as I suppose is everything) dying.


I have heard mutterings of this sort before, but in the random, sourpuss way that I never take seriously. However, after this week of hearing so many people I respect sing tragedy for my so-far chosen metier, I do wonder if I ought to be thinking/worrying/defending myself. By which I mean both myself doing some defending, and doing some self-defense.

Self-defense--I do feel implicated/assaulted here, hence the semi-confusing header. Because I spend so much time reading, writing, thinking about this form, I guess I've come to believe that we are somewhat synonymous, or at least symbiotic. Not actually; of course the short story will be just fine if *I* go, but how would I do without the short story?

I don't want to find out.

Short stories have a lot of technical challenges that make them difficult to write, and difficult to read. But if you've tried to do either, then you know that, and if you haven't, I don't want to discourage you. So let's talk instead about what's great about short stories, about how they will never die:

Short stories give the intensity of single moments and incidents--a playground game, a barroom brawl, a cigarette break--that would have to be contextualized into a life in a novel, pared down into pure language in a poem. Sometimes, you just need what happened, right there, right then--he said, she said, the chandelier crashed down and I took the puppy into the street. You need every detail and dialogue tag, but maybe not the how and the why and the what happened next.

Short stories can be read on the bus to work, and thought about all day long.

Short stories can be shared in magazines and journals and newspapers. You can sell them--it's not easy, and you won't get rich, but there are dozens and dozens ways to get your stories to readers, and find stories to read.

Short stories are complete, and thus you know (nearly) right away what you are dealing with--whether you like it if not why, and whether you want more. They are self-contained, offering all you ever need know about the given situation. And yet they are by nature constrained and thus spare--non-essentials are left out, leaving space for the reader to slide inside, inserting imagination of whys and wherefores, physical descriptions and psychological profiles. For readers that like that sort of thing.

Short stories be can sent as attachments.

Short stories contain lines like:

"I felt like I was turning into a reptile, an iguana sitting on a rock with a decaying memory and no compassion." Douglas Coupland, "In the Desert", Life After God

"Bodies look white in the winter light and now she is cold under his nervous fingers, breath sawing, springs creaking like the poplar branch clawing at the frosted pane and he rolls from her on the cool sheets, tense, held back by something." Mark Anthony Jarman, "Wintering Partners", Dancing Nightly at the Tavern

"You struck me as a circus performer. You were fat-thin, your hair long-short, the fingers that held your cigarette swollen like those of a midget (though I know that's not what they like to be called)." Emily Schultz, "I Love You, Pretty Puppy", IV Lounge Nights

I remain unconvinced.

Never say die, comrades. Never say die.

The declaration of spring / the next day it starts snowin


Terry Finley said...

What a great article.

Terry Finley

Tania Hershman said...

I agree! I think we should all stop harping on about the short story being "dead" or "dying", in desparate need of salvation. Let's just get on with it, write great stories, read great stories, pass the word around about great stories. Less of the obituaries, more of the celebration.

Rattling Books said...

Rattling Books is quite fond of short stories and anyone who wants some for their mp3 player can download either collections (Open by Lisa Moore, In the Chambers of the Sea by Susan Rendell, Montreal Stories by Mavis Gallant, On the Beach in Spanish Room by Janis Spence) or "singles".

We're planning a series of audio short fiction that we'll be launching
soon so hope you'll check out for some audio short stories.

As for the demise of the short story, you're only dead if you die.

Janet Russell

J.D. said...

Just as it is with anything else, the best examples of the short story will live on because they are great examples of art, not just of a single form.

You know what always happens when everyone begins saying something is dead--renaissance. I predict we will see a widely-recognized renaissance of the form before long and that literature teachers a hundred years from now will have another period to teach.

Or, you know, things will just keep going as they are and the short story will continue to thrive.

NigelBeale said...

Dying? Simply read Chekhov and Maugham. They'll never die...and one story in particular by Michael Redhill, The Victim, Who cannot be Named. It's stunning.

I look forward to reading your collection.