Sunday, April 05, 2009

Short Fiction

A.O. Scott on the American Short Story

From today's Times:
But the conventional wisdom in American letters has always been that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters — take your pick of Hemingway-Mailer macho sports metaphors — go after the Great American Novel.

But this maximalist ideology may be completely wrong, or at least in serious need of revision. The great American writers of the 19th century, whose novels are now staples of the syllabus, all excelled in the short form. Herman Melville’s “Piazza Tales” are as lively and strange as “Moby-Dick”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and sketches are pithier than “The Scarlet Letter”; Henry James’s stories, supernatural and otherwise, show a gift for concision along with the master’s expected psychological acuity.
He continues:
But if the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence. Wells Towers’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” provides the most vivid recent example of the way a good story, or a solid collection of them, can do more than a novel to illuminate the textures of ordinary life and the possibilities of language. And the short story may provide a timely antidote to the cultural bloat of the past decade, when it often seemed that every novel needed to be 500 pages long and every movie had to last three hours — or four years, if it took the form of a cable series.

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.
Forgive me for not using brief quotations: this is a great article. I agree with much of what A.O. Scott has to say, chiefly that brevity should be the goal of every writer. As far as my reading habits go, reading doorstops is mentally taxing but I don't mind them when they're worth every page. But I'm not forgiving when the writer has failed to edit their prose to the essentials. Every writer is guilty of this at some point but it's worst kind of mistake. Especially in an age where people have less time to read (or choose to read less).

I don't necessarily agree that the short story is the answer to fiction's problem; I don't need to repeat the known problems of the short story. But I think novelists should aim to write fiction that is consumable in two sittings - something, I believe, Joan Didion said was her aim with her fiction. That typically means less than 300 pages. But if you need 500, that's okay too: just make it good and don't waste a damn word.


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