Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why write short stories?

It's sad--to me, at least--that the question even needs to be asked. The better question might well be, "Why read a short story?" But I've never been one for begging. I don't want to tell anyone else why they should do anything because if you have to explain, the battle's already lost. There is no way in this semi-literate world to convince anyone to read something they don't want to read. Short stories and poetry seem to be at the top of the "Most Unwanted" list.

But I've always liked short stories. Like most people, I was introduced to the form in grade school. Unlike most people, I took to it like a wasp to a garbage can. Unfortunate metaphor, but it will suffice. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart" is one of those I recall best--it was the "vulturous eye" of the old man upon which the insane narrator fixated, an image that has stayed with me since Grade Seven. I remember "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs, with the admonition that you "should be careful what you wish for." Here I was, the biggest daydreamer in the Western hemisphere and being told that my dreams could lead to tragedy, disaster, and mental anguish. And while I felt ill for the grieving parents who'd brought their son, in some loathsome form, back from the dead, I thought it was pretty cool what a mere thought could do.

Later on, in university, I was so enthralled with Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" that I went on to read his Twice-Told Tales and anything else by that author I could get my hands on. It was like being dragged willingly into a world I'd never even imagined--of witch trials in 17th C New England, of the changing of the guard in Colonial America, and people literally being tarred and feathered and paraded through town. Sure, I could look these things up on line or, back then, in an encycopedia. But there was something in the medium that compelled me to keep reading and to want to find more and read more of it. Quite simply, I liked being told a story. Maybe it was the yearnings of a child who didn't get read to enough at bedtime when he was young, like the baby who doesn't receive enough mother's milk. Stories, granted, are a different kind of nourishment, but it's a kind that we all crave at some point. Whether in film, song, graphic novel, or comic book, the story is the thing. It helps us make sense of our world sometimes, or it just entertains us--although I suspect it wouldn't entertain nearly as much if it didn't help us make sense of some things. On some level, the story is as primal as mother's milk, with similar nurturing powers and, in like manner, we lose our taste for it as we grow older.

Except, we still crave when we get older. We seek that nourishment where we can--in bars, from music, on the internet. It's like the human propensity for seeing faces--particularly the face of Jesus in a corn chip--in that we seek the man or woman who will tell us a good story, something to terrify us (like the escaped convict with the bloody hook for a hand!), mystify us (whatever happened to Ichabod Crane?), or teach us (as when we learn from Poe that madness resides within us all--a rather terrifying thought, in fact).

Okay, so maybe we are drawn to the story, but why on earth would someone choose to write a short story? I can't speak for the many who do write them. Everyone (or at least those who are paying attention) seems to know that short stories aren't the big draw they once were. Hardly anyone is reading them these days. There are too many other pulls on the imagination. The novel is bigger and sexier and, let's face it, can tell a much bigger story. Then, in this technologically advanced age, there is always the option to "make your own adventure" or seek thrills in a video game or watch reality TV, or any TV for that matter. One could even--heaven forbid--go down to court for a pickup game of basketball. There's just no shortage of options.

You would think in this so-called "magazine age" with its short attention span that the short story would be ideal. You could even read them on an iPod Touch, if you so choose. With its no-nonsense approach to the narrative, told in as few words as possible, the short story would seem to be the perfect companion for that evening ride home on the bus, or those few minutes in the dentist's office before they come to take you away, or that dead half hour when there's nothing going on and you just need some mental stimulation. Those last two words might be the key here because, at the end of a long day, the last thing a lot a people want is "mental stimulation." Of course, sadly, there are a lot of people who would consider themselves far better off without those two words entering their vocabularly, since we live in an age where it's so easy to become famous for doing absolutely nothing and having two clicks in your head isn't a requirement. Why be smart when you can be rich? Personally, I'd prefer both.

Will short story reading actually make you smarter? Well, that's a matter for some debate and it is treading into that territory where I didn't want to go, of convincing people they "should" read short stories. If you're intrigued enough to have read this far, then you probably don't fight your inclination to read them, not so much anyway. But those who stopped reading after the first paragraph, or even just the title, likely will not be bullied into submission. Those people we call the unwashed masses.

The real question, possibly, is whether writing short stories will make me smarter, as a writer? On the one hand, who cares? There is a danger, as I recall Stephen King recently pointing out, of short story artists writing only for the shrinking audience, for those who are actually reading. And I think there's an AWFUL lot of that going on. Editors often are interested in the magic tricks a writer can do--how many voices are there in this collection? Can he write in a postmodern style? Can he mess around with plot or write a character-centric piece that will have you creaming your jeans from the shear sexiness of the words, or is he just one of those old-fashioned writers who simply wants to tell a good story? The latter creature is in danger of extinction as more and more literary journals exist for the reading pleasure of those who subscribe to--and perhaps never even read--their magazines. They're often not interested in a good story well told. They want to know if you're being "experimental" with either form or language because, after all, "that's what everyone is reading."

Well, if that's what "everyone" is reading, they can read among themselves. Experimentation is fine, It is probably even necessary, to test the boundaries of what's been done and, especially what that particular writer has been doing. I often test my own supposed boundaries, if only so I don't bore myself to death. But there is a danger inherent in such behaviour when it becomes the sole reason for writing a story.

To me, a story should have, at its heart, the entertainment of whoever might read it. It might be read on a plane, in a living room, on a park bench, or wherever, and be understood (for the most part) and enjoyed by just about anyone. But there is a lot of writing for writers going on out there. I may even have done it myself, although, if I have, it is certainly not a consicous effort. Sure, I've written stories that castigate writers for performing such tricks--of speaking only to other writers, or to university professors and editors--in a private language that the unwashed masses couldn't possible be interested in. And who, really, could blame them?

Edgar Allan Poe wrote his share of stories that were meant to tweak the noses of his critics. He himself was "The Tomahawk Critic" and an editor of some renown. But his best stories--the ones that have survived him in the grandest way--are the ones that simpy seek to thrill, to anger, to excite...to thrill. He aims to produce an effect, and that is all. He doesn't want you to be thinking about the state of literary criticism while he's trying to tell you a story. He wants to scare the living crap out of you and make you afraid to go to sleep tonight. That's what he wants. It's sort of like , "Buddy, I'm already up; I might as well keep you awake too." Misery loves company and that, too, is a sentiment which drives many a writer, poets included.

I enjoy writing short stories. That wasn't always the case. But it is the case now because, once I started writing them and people starting reading them and enjoying them, I was hooked. There's not much money in it, but that couldn't possibly be the goal anyway. The audience just isn't big enough. I've always written novels--without much publication success yet, though I know that will change--and to novels I will return. But I'm already on to my next collection, about monsters of different kinds, and I salivate at the prospect of writing the next one. It's just plain fun. That's why I write short stories., or at least a big part of the reason.
There is an inherent artistic satisfaction I derive from producing something with a perfect beginnging, middle, and end. Sometimes they don't work out. But when they do, it's a feeling akin to having written a perfect song or painted a haunting portrait. Short stories aren't just miniature novels. They're not miniature anythings--they're just the size they mean to be and need to be in order to get the story told. If the idea can be told in 10,000 words, why would someone take 150,000? I guess there are many reasons for that, but the inverse question is even more to the point: if you can write a big idea in a few thousand words, now that's a challenge and one to be proud of. They might not pay you much for it, no matter how you publish it, but you've done something artistic.

Can't believe I used the "A" word, but I admit there is that sense of artistic pride in writing short stories. I like knowing that I can do it and that I did it. But if I ever find myself writing to an audience of writers--very often anyway--then I am in trouble. I like when other writers like my stuff, but there is a huge part of me that doesn't even care.

There are certain members of my family about whom I always say, "If they're pleased with what I'm doing, then I must be harming myself." Well, that's similar to my mantra about writing: "If all the critics and all the writers are pleased with my efforts, then I'd better think twice before doing it again." I like good reviews, but I don't need them. All I really need is to be true to my own vision for the story. Of course, having an editor who gets your vision is gold in itself, but you can't go trying to please an editor or anybody else. You don't get to be Poe, Hawthorne, King or Alice Munro by worrying about trying to reinvent the short story.

It doesn't need to be reinvented. It already exists.

Like a tree that falls in a forest.


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