Friday, June 15, 2007

Defending the short story (or, why you shouldn't bother)

AL Kennedy on the much-maligned short story:
The short story - it gets a bad press. Well, mainly it gets no press at all, which is worse. But if it ever is discussed, the short story is usually dismissed as the commercially untouchable equivalent of finger-painting.

In an age when responsible adults will happily read Harry Potter books in public, the short story is supposed to be something for children - possibly because they're short, too. Plus, it's condemned to labour under the pedantic curse that demands a beginning, a middle and a twist in the tail. The magazines that used to print stories have largely disappeared and they're left to be harried by endless small-scale competitions that merrily dictate size, content, themes and even title options. (Would you do that to a novel?) Stories are allegedly what novelists knock off when they're feeling lazy, me journalism with a dash of purple prose, something to read in the toilet, a waste of trees.

I know that, as both a writer and reader of short stories, I'm supposed to say, "Huzzah!" and "Finally!" at this, but even putting aside my natural inclination toward hating everything that is good and well-meaning, I think these kinds of things are not only pointless but self-defeating.

A few months ago, at a literary awards event, the head of a jury handing out an award for best short story gave an impassioned defence of the short story form. Almost involuntary, a thought came into my mind: "I guess the short story is dead after all..."

How do you "defend" an artistic form? I can make arguments as to why a particular writer or book should be read, but a form? There's a lot of three-minute rock songs I like, too – doesn't mean I think people should be out scooping up as many of the things as they can simply because, you know, rock songs are good!

Despite Kennedy's claims to the contrary, modern short stories are not typefied by their diversity. There is always someone around putting some quirky spin on the basic model of the "20-page bourgeois blues," but that just confirms the primacy of the central model. As James Wood said of magical realism vis á vis plain-old realism, the bourgeois story schools its truants. I'm not complaining about that – how could I, given that my favourite short story writers (Chekhov, Cheever, Pritchett, O'Connor, etc.) pretty much invented that model, along with Updike and Munro and the rest. Within that frame, Barthelme is more like Updike's acid-dropping older brother than anything truly alien. With so many stories and writers trying to fit within that narrow cultural cohort, of course the general reading public is not going to respond with boundless enthusiasm. You can only read so many stories about the end of a significant relationship, and about the feelings engendered by such an event. (I know; I've written them, and still do.)

The arguments in the defence of the story also get confused when it comes to separating artistic realities from economic ones. Kennedy's piece is typical. Stories, she writes, are too often "condemned to labour under the pedantic curse that demands a beginning, a middle and a twist in the tail." How declassé – an ending. Short stories are the purest form, she states, and should be subject to no outside considerations, especially crass commercial ones. But then she complains that agents and editors don't take them seriously as a commercial concern, and commercial magazines don't print them anymore. And they especially won't print the naughty ones.

This is called wanting to have one's short fiction cake and eat it, too. Especially odd given that she invokes the name of O. Henry in the piece – not exactly the purest avant-garde model around. Do you want to be rich or respected?

A short story collection won the Giller prize and was one of the bestselling Canadian books this year. Why? For one thing, because it was a collection of stories about doctors, written by a doctor. And it was written well. In other words, short story collections don't sell... until they do. Here's a shocker: agents and editors have no idea what will sell, either. Not until someone comes along with something that a large number of people enjoy reading. (Then they go looking for more of that.)

In other words, it's the writing that justifies the existence of a form, both commercially and artistically.

Pouting that the critics and the marketplace don't take you seriously enough and exhorting people to read stories just because stories are good! is the best way to signal your own irrelevance. After all, I'm sure the classical music press is full of op-ed article wondering why people don't listen to more fugues....


Anonymous said...

Fugues are hard. I like Henry Purcell. Here's a common quiz on fugues and know, for when you're not reading short stories:


patricia said...

I'm sure Russell Smith wrote a piece about not enough people listening to fugues just the other day.

Loved this post. And I love your writng.