Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday Night Opinion Page

One thing that has been getting my (admittedly easily gotten) goat lately is the perennial lament that short fiction has lost its audience because perverse writers and editors insist on being all post-modern and counter-culture and everything. If only, the argument goes, writers went back to crafting charming and traditional stories like the ones that used to be published in The Saturday Evening Post, everyone would read stories! The Average American would sit down and enjoy a short story of an evening, and would maybe even read aloud to Junior who would thereafter cease his gang activity, etc.

Gosh, such baloney.

So, what did happen to the ubiquitous "traditional" short story, if it wasn't murdered by John Barth and Robert Coover? Here's my theory: it didn't go anywhere; it just changed its medium. We humans have an almost endless appetite for stories -- for the conflict/drama/resolution thing. We still do; most of us just don't get our satisfaction from short stories anymore. We get it from television and movies -- actually, mostly television. In this theory, television corresponds to short stories and movies to novels. The reason novels have fared better is because it's hard to get people to sit in a movie seat for fifteen hours.

Anyway, speaking as a reader, there are more than enough short stories out there to fill my needs. Alice Munro alone almost does it. I forgot to go to bed last night because I was so enthralled by Margaret Atwood's latest collection. There's this Australian guy named Tim Winton whose book I just got -- very, very old fashioned traditional stories, almost Cheevery. Every week the NYer brings a story to my mailbox, usually not to my taste, but hey, I'm picky. Oh yeah, and every year there's Best American, O. Henry, New Stories from the South, etc., plus Harpers, Esquire, Playboy, and numberless literary mags who generally err on the side of boring, but who offer endless pickings, anyway.

The literary short story is doing fine. Fine, I tell you!

Because popular culture has shifted away from the written word somewhat (not entirely, of course, as Mssrs Grisham and Crichton will be happy to tell you), the short story has been freed from the burden of popular entertainment. It's different now, but not necessarily worse. There's some crazy stuff out there (nothing as crazy as Gertrude Stein, though) but if you look, you'll find plenty to like. Unless, of course, you're a writer longing for the romantic days when you could make a living pounding out stories for the slicks. Wasn't that an awfully brief interlude, though?

Cultures change, and a culture's art changes with it. It's constantly fresh and new. And thank Mother Nature for that.


Anonymous said...

Full of contradictions. If most of us don't get pleasure from short stories, how can they be doing fine?

If dead = new, then I guess you're right

zoe said...

Surely short stories don't have to be loved by everyone to be doing fine. I've just read two collections of short stories that I very much enjoyed: Barbara Gowdy and Ewan morrison. I prefer to read novels because they are more involving for me. However, sometimes I'm in the mood for a short story due to time, energy or whatever.

Things do change, but were short stories ever massively popular, or were they always the more specialised little sibling of novels?

Anonymous said...

There was a time when the short story was one of the default forms of popular narrative. Now it isn't. It's like a poem, or a painting--a niche form. Short story writers should rejoice--the numbskulls have quit looking over their shoulders, wondering why there isn't a wedding at the end. If you think the short story isn't populist enough, then piss off and watch TV.

William Eggleston: "I am at war with the obvious." I'll go sit in his dugout, thanks.

rmellis said...

Most of us don't get our pleasure from long-distance running, either, but that doesn't mean it's dead.

G. C. Munroe said...

I strongly disagree with the above.

I work a desk job in finance, an industry whose workers are intelligent but notoriously uncultured. I usually have a book or two on my desk. One day a few months back a colleague of mine, a back-slapping, meat-and-potatoes guy from Long Island, stopped by. He picked up the book I was reading at the time - The Road - and asked how I liked it. I summarized the plot, explained what it was that I enjoyed about McCarthy's style. He seemed interested, so I pushed him until he agreed to give the book a try.

Two days after I loaned it, he handed it back. He said he'd started it on his commute back home, couldn't put it down - skipped TV to read through the night. Mind you, this is a guy who told me he hadn't picked up a novel since college.

I passed the book on to another buddy of mine who works the tech desk (also a non-reader). He'd overheard our conversation. Then I loaned the first guy Blood Meridian. Now both say they won't watch No Country for Old Men until they read the book.

What do they like about McCarthy? The tech: 'He's smart but not stuffy.'

This is what I'm talking about. It's this that makes me feel that with a bit of nudging and by crafting work that does away with the literary pretenses I see in almost every journal I crack, literature could make a comeback.

To say we're somehow better off without the average joe 'reading over our shoulders' infuriates me. It's that attitude that perpetuates the worst in contemporary literature: the smarmy, pedantic regard for the common man: the blighted mentality that views the abstruse and obscure as good, the accessible and popular as suspicious.

As far as I can tell, there are two paths open to contemporary letters: one is a downhill retreat, a fall into obscurity, affectation, to a pocket of self-perpetuating academic work; the other is an uphill advance, using every trick and slight-of-hand we can to reclaim the popular audience.

As amateur a writer as I am, I'll always strive to achieve the latter.

G. C. Munroe said...

I should also mention - to put my hot-blooded Saturday morning rant a bit more on topic - that I've also loaned another colleague Shepard's latest collection of short stories, Like You'd Understand, Anyway. So far? - thumbs up.

Writer, Rejected said...

As someone who wrote a film script of one of my short stories (originally written in the blush of youth in the 1980s, published quietly in my collection the 1990s), which is now nearly financed for filming in a foreign land, I think I have to agree with your change of medium argument. I myself hope with all my might that the story isn't dead, but I do really wish it had sent out a change of address card to staunch all this confusion!

rmellis said...

It's not the real "common man" that's the problem (if there is even such thing as the common man) -- it's the imaginary idea of him that makes some artists think they have to write to please him.

McCarthy's not trying to churn out crowd pleasers -- he's writing the best thing he possibly can.

That's what we should all do.

Anonymous said...

Grant, all I'm saying is, I write only to please myself. If other people like it, swell, but if they don't, tough titty. I honestly don't care. When somebody says that fiction writers ought to strive for more popular appeal, it makes me want to scream. I will write exactly what I like, period, and if I'm never published again as a result, that's my problem.

I am not making an argument that the "average joe" is an idiot. The average joe doesn't exist. In the arena of this argument, he's a fantasy character whom commercial publishers have invented to try to justify the shallow nonsense they put out every year.

I will not be accused of elitism or any other kind of snobbery. When I say the appeal of the short story is narrow, I am not thinking of any particular group of people. I am not thinking of professors, critics, and arteests. I'm thinking of a small group of readers who cannot be classified by race, class, and socioeconomic status. They are, to be blunt, intelligent, emotionally open people, of all walks of life. They are readers. They're the people whom literature is for.

Your wedding of academia to classism, elitism, and pretension is baseless, ill-informed, and utterly incorrect. This is the Rush Limbaugh line, and I will not stand for it--it's asinine reverse snobbery...or, to be precise, just plain old snobbery. You are creating an imaginary group of people to look down on, just like you are wrongly accusing me of doing. I come from a working-class town, and now I teach at a college, and I can tell you from long experience that there are geniuses, morons, dullards and wags everywhere.

Personally, I have never been pretentious for one second in my entire life. Every single thing I write, I mean. My work, whether good or bad, is always the product of absolute, white-hot honesty. You could choose to think I'm full of shit when I say this, but you'd be wrong. You might think my work sucks, and there you might be right--but if it sucks, it's because the part of me that made it sucks.

There are great artists with popular appeal, and there are great artists who are hard to understand. It is not their "connection" to their "audience" that makes them great. It is their dedication to their craft. A great artist writes what she does because it is the precise expression of her deepest self--and she doesn't give a fuck what anybody is going to think of her. She writes the way she does because she can't write any other way. Because her work is WHO SHE IS.

You can write to your popular audience all you want. If that's what you know how to do, good for you. But understand that you are not the only amateur here. I have never once in my life accepted an advance for something I haven't written yet. I have never compromised my artistic integrity for money. I am an amateur to the core, and will be one to the grave.

5 Red Pandas said...

I don't think the argument here is against "average Joe" readers, but a resignation and possible celebration of the fact that while short stories might not be flooding the market, those that do get out there are allowed to be more experimental, or take up a variety of subjects because there isn't a lot of money riding on their success. That said, there are still plenty of traditional short story writers being published, it's just comforting to know that there is room for more than the traditional short story.

Cormac McCarthy certainly has his own affectations and stylistic quirks and has been long celebrated by the academy- possible because of those stylistic quirks.

I think that whenever a writer like McCarthy reaches critical mass the way he has recently done, it has less to do with his efforts to reach the popular audience and more to do with certain things coming together at once. The movie(s) certainly helped elevate McCarthy onto the national stage, as did his anointment by Oprah.

Anonymous said...

Rhian's theory is that genius is not just the product of the individual, but of the times. I agree with that, and with Pandas.

Edward said...

Rhian, I will turn off lurk mode here to just make a comment. This is, surely, a hot topic -- strong emotions on either side. That, to me, suggests that this is something worth looking into. Whenever there are strong emotions, it is usually over a conflict on what is truth. I believe this latest commotion is the beginning of some kind of debate in literary circles -- and, in my view, debate is good. (So long as we don't get carried away by our emotions.)

In reading your post, I get the distinct suggestion that this has become your hobby horse. You are happy with the state of fiction, with contemporary writers, and don't like to hear complaints about it from those writers who like what fiction used to be. But, I would suggest to keep in mind that these people have their own visions and should be allowed to work toward it; their criticism should be allowed to be heard. Remember, your (our? I'm not sure right now) opinions and views are the mainstream, and they are the outcasts. Let's let them have a voice, too.

Now, off to read that "perennial lament" so I can decide where I stand...

rmellis said...

Zoe: I just noticed that most of the short fiction writers I mentioned are non-American. Coicidence? I don't know! I will check out those two writers.

Writer, Rejected -- I don't think it will ever die! Though yeah, who can compete with the flash of movies? Now we have to do what only fiction can do... whatever that maybe be.

Pandas -- Thank you, yes, that's what I was trying to say. You put it much more succintly and eloquently.

Edward -- No, not quite a hobby horse yet. And actually I'm NOT happy with the state of contemporary fiction -- it's often too formulaic, too pleased with itself, not honest enough -- only I don't blame writers, but the publishing money guys who want books to produce an enormous profit margin.

edward said...

Rhian I have had time now to read the "perennial complaint" and ponder it a bit. Thought of it much this weekend, actually.

I have to agree with you that the publishing money guys and gals are the ones who are mostly guilty here. Too many bad decisions to kill the story. Too much dumbing down. Way too much dumbing down. I think you are right about the short story being not honest enough today. All this "workshop fiction" -- for lack of a better term. Technically polished? Maybe. Soul? Hardly.

But after pondering the essay and reading the debate in the comments, I do have to admit that these struggling writers have a good, and quite solid, point. Short stories are not currently in the public eye at all -- and this is a bad thing. Art is not to be "precious" or something that is done without an audience. It rings true, these complaints of theirs: that the short story and the culture of "high literature" has gone the way of the old fashion movie star. That's precisely it! And if these writers want to bring that old fashion back, and do it right in the face of today's t-shirt and fast food culture, then I say, "More power to them!"

rmellis said...

Heck, it would be great if everyone read short fiction on their lunch hour and kicked back with it after dinner. I don't disagree. I just don't think telling writers to work on the marketability of their fiction is the way to do it.

Even if that idea didn't annoy me, I don't think it would work anyway.

What might work is some creative publishing decisions -- cool little cheap books, maybe, like those 33 1/3 books -- and putting stories in the mags they belong in. So talk to the editors, man, not the writers who have already devoted their lives to this thing!