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4.05.2011

Screw Poetry Month--What About the Short Story?

Once again, I bemoan the dying breed of the short story (this is never an old topic. Also, it's not really dying [as long as there are MFA programs]; what I mean by dying is that it is not that popular; that is, it is quite like the red-headed step-child).

In the recent Glimmer Train Bulletin, writer Matt Lapata writes about how we as writers might be able to save the short story.

The problem according to Lapata is TV and video games. These other forms of entertainment, he argues, is taking away valuable time from readers. Readers are turning to comic books, TV shows, and video games who have larger than life characters.

He writes:


When you say a generic MFA'er has memorable characters, could you imagine them on a T-shirt or see some drunk at a bar impersonating them? Are they going to get spin-offs? Are their plots gripping, really, or is someone babysitting a dog and pondering how that makes him feel about his wife and modern society?

To make blockbusters is the way for the short story can compete. And it's all about competition.

This compared to an argument from a guest on the Ploughshares blog (that I can't currently find, but I linked to it before) that says that the short story will survive, but only as a refined taste.

Lapata makes this claim too, comparing the short story to jazz:

I sometimes think about these stories the way I think about jazz. I appreciate them. I understand its history and the chops required to play it. But when I say I like a jazz song, I'm abbreviating. I like it as a jazz song. I actually like rock, for example. I can get that fuck-yeah feeling behind rock songs, play them in the car or for friends and all that. I rarely feel this way about a short story, but I have, so I can, and I'd like to do it a hell of a lot more.

But instead of accepting the fact that the short story might be uppity, something of an educated class, it seems like Lapata is arguing for an attempt to popularize the form.

On the one hand this is already done, especially in genre fiction

Erotica as we know it is mainly short stories. Sci-fi and fantasy (I sometimes feel it is isn't right to lump these together, but I guess that's another post) has a few great anthologies, not to mention speculative magazines such as Asimov's and SF&F. Mysteries and thrillers too have their short stories (such as Alfred Hitchcock Magazine and Ellery Queen). Romance are fewer, they're more likely to be novellas lumped into specially themed books.

Yet on the other hand, this is not enough. The big sellers are usually the novels. Again, because of the characters who stay in our head.

And can you blame them? Do you remember the name of the guy in Carver's "Cathedral"? Or the woman in Lorrie Moore's "How To Be The Other Woman?" (even though it's second person, she does have a name). Heck, most of Amy Hempel's works have nameless narrators (which is not to say nameless narrators are not memorable, for example Fight Club).

But coming from a short story writer, the question is: how much characterization can you put into so little space? And is it worth to replace characterization for say style and emotional resonance?  Are emotional resonance, style, characterization mutually exclusive in the short story, especially if one's goal is to have the type of character who will be on a t-shirt? 

Can the short story satisfy all of your needs? Must it satisfy all our needs?

Ponder that. 

I'll be in Boston for the rest of the week for the American Humanist Association's annual conference. Rebecca Goldstein will be there (who Avis Shivani doesn't seem to fond of, but nonetheless...)

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