...most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers.
Oh, for pete's sake. "Incubating?" This is not what we're doing, and for those of us who have been in MFA programs, this isn't what we felt was being done to us. That is, if we were bothering to do anything at all worthwhile. As students, we were writing whatever the hell we wanted to write, and as teachers, we are teaching according to whatever the hell our students are writing.
"The short story is a more manageable form." Perhaps. But you have to be a pretty shitty teacher to value manageability over artistic ambition. More than half of my current fiction grad students are writing novels, and some of my undergrads are, too. And I read them all, without hesitation. BECAUSE THAT'S MY JOB. Several of my recent grad students are publishing novels as well--good ones.
But how is this possible? Well, it's because grad students are not fucking idiots, that's why. They are able to give one another the proper context when they workshop novel excerpts. They read one another's novel manuscripts. When their peers workshop short stories, they are able to apply much of what they learned in this process to the process of writing and editing a novel. They also read lots of novels. And, at least at Cornell, we have craft-centered literature classes in which the structure, style, and purpose of novels are discussed.
The workshop model is not forcing anyone to write short stories, or any particular kind of short story. Undergrads like short stories because they're just starting out at fiction and want to give it a try on a smaller scale. And it's true, we are very ready to accomodate them. But these stories are not like processed meat, dumped out of a can. They are wildly different from one another. And we accomodate students' longer works too--and their memoirs, graphic novels, poem cycles, opera librettos, dance/literature hybrids, experimental film scripts, fine art printing projects, and collaborations with composers. And yes, I have seen all of these things in my five years at Cornell. And every time, I've said, "Awesome, let's do this." Is your writing program not like this? Then fix your writing program, because it sucks.
Furthermore, much of the work of a writing teacher happens not in workshop but during office hours, or at the coffee shop in the basement, or at a bar after workshop, or on the phone, or via email, or in the many years of professional and personal friendship that often follow a student's years in an MFA program. We do not run factories. We provide a place for students to figure out what they want, and then we help them achieve it. The idea that there is some rigid structure here, or that we are helpless in the face of it, is asinine.
If the publishing world appears to be drowning in a flood of mediocre short stories, that's because it is. It always was. Most writing is terrible, and there is a lot of it. I am tired of people declaring that this era is shittier than all the others, and then blaming me for it. In fact there is more good fiction being written now than I could read in eight lifetimes, and, much as I'd like to believe otherwise, that's not my fault either.