Sunday, March 2, 2008

More on the Short Story

I feel like maybe I need to defend my outrageous statement of a couple posts ago: "The literary short story is doing fine."

Here's an example, one of the finest short stories I've ever read in my life: Alice Munro's "Dimension," which was in the New Yorker in 2006 and reprinted in BASS 2007, the one edited by Stephen King. It's about a woman whose husband murders their children. You couldn't ask for more difficult material -- I can't usually read that kind of thing, and yeah, I more or less sob the whole time I'm reading it. But people, take a look at that story. I don't know if anyone has ever committed an act of such extraordinary empathy. It takes the top of my head off. It really does.

And how about Lydia Davis? Those of you who value plot over all might not love her, but she does everything a great artist must do: she communicates a specific and meaningful experience -- often just a mental state of being -- in an absolutely original way. Her collection was nominated for the National Book Award! I never thought I'd see the day.

Jim Shepard's collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was also nominated. Now, I'm not crazy about his stuff. I find it tedious and the characters muted. But he's writing short stories, and lots of people with taste different from mine love it, and it is highly imaginative and original.

And Miranda July's collection was published this year, too -- it's another totally original piece of work.

There are many others -- I'm sure I'm leaving some obviously good ones out.

You know, I don't expect to be blown away every time I open the New Yorker or Harpers or The Paris Review or the Georgia Review or Epoch or The Alaska Quarterly Review or whatever. But sometimes I am! And you know what, genius is rare. I read a truly brilliant short story maybe twice a year. Do we really need more than that? Do we need Hemingway on the back of our cereal boxes?

Maybe some readers don't like anything I mentioned above. Maybe you like something different and something that isn't published much these days. If so, please, start a press! Or a journal! Even a web journal. Seriously -- it's so much easier than it used to be to become a publisher. When I get my stuff together and find my letterpress I'm going to start a publishing house, no joke.

But maybe you think there's good stuff out there, but not enough people read it. There's only way to get Americans to read more -- if you think that's a useful goal -- and that's by teaching literature in schools. And teaching it well. God knows if we'll ever be able to turn the ship around and do that.


5 Red Pandas said...

This may be presumptuous, but once you get that publishing house started I want to get in on the ground floor!
All I'm saying is that my hand is a available for lending.

rmellis said...

Definitely -- you can head the New York office!

I think it's going to be Corvus Press and its symbol will be a crow. Unless that's already taken...

AC said...

I think I read the first half of that Alice Munro story. I picked up a magazine at the gym one day, and was flipping through it as I walked on the treadmill. My turn on the treadmill ended before the story did, so I didn't get to finish it. I did not remember the magazine or the name of the author, but I'm sure there can't have been more than one story like that in a national magazine in the winter of 2006. Thanks for reminding me of it! Now I can track it down and read the whole thing.

jrlennon said...

R. and I don't always agree on fiction, but I absolutely concur that this story is utterly stunning. It reminds me a little bit of her previous very creepy story "Fits," except more personal, and more devastating.

Rich said...

I loved that Munro story! If you'd told me the gist of the plot and didn't tell me who wrote it, i probably never would have read the thing. It reminded me a lot of "Fits" too. You have the same sudden physical 'fit' followed by the really weird psychological 'fit'.

Speaking of creepy, thanks for the recommendation on "We have always lived in the castle"! I was nearly halfway through it before I realized it was by the same author who wrote "lottery", which I liked a lot when I was a teenager.

edward said...

Thank you for the recommendation. I will have to track down this issue and read the story when I get home tonight.

These other publications you mention, they are so obscure. I think that is the very argument. Nobody reads them, and they don't pay anything. Like Rhian said a few entries ago (I think two weeks ago), "Why bother?"

That's the whole argument here that I think you're missing.

But Hemingway on the back of my cereal box would be most welcome. I am very sick of seeing how healthy and reasonable my choice is with giant proclamations of "Oatmeal helps fight cancer!"

It might be easier to publish your words, but it's harder than ever to find an audience. Especially a mass audience. That "long tail" argument of Chris Anderson seems wrong for art. If we are all split up into tiny segments, we cannot have a cohesive single culture.

David Ingle said...

Actually, some of the places he mentions, including _The Georgia Review_ do pay -- and for those in the literary world they aren't THAT obscure -- heck, _The Georgia Review_ won a National Magazine Award last year, beating out the _New Yorker._ Of course no magazine is always brilliant, but I'm thankful for the existence of the so-called little magazines. If we all had to rely on the big boys for short fiction, the landscape would be far less interesting.

rmellis said...

Maybe I'm a bit cynical about American culture, but that mags like The Georgia Review even *exist* (and, the last time I looked at B&N, were even available there) is a freaking MIRACLE!!!

Plus, there are still some slicks that publish stories, including some excellent ones in Playboy. ;)

The Atlantic should be taken out and THRASHED for not publishing fiction except in its summer issue. Seriously, WTF?? Now Playboy is a bastion of literary fiction, and the Atlantic is not? Crazy fricking world.

jrlennon said...

Edward, we cannot have a single cohesive culture, period. Ever. The thing that makes American culture unique is that it is fragmented--and this fragmentation is part of our national identity.

I LOVE this about our literate culture. It means there are always little hidden treasures to be found. It also means that anyone can participate--there is no central cultural authority, no insiders and outsiders. Hell, it's insiderism that everybody's always complaining about on this blog--and a cohesive culture would mean that somebody would have to decide who gets to be part of it, and who doesn't.

We do have gatekeepers in our literate culture, but they are growing less important every day. This is a good thing. It means that you can't rest on your laurels--you have to keep being excellent over and over again to be worth anything.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to your blog
and just looking around.

Terry Finley