Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What exactly are we saving?

"Save the Short Story" website -- again, I take issue with "saving" something that's been on the brink of extinction since the 1960s despite the dramatic increase in MFA programs churning out short stories, despite the rising number of independent lit magazines out there both in print and online; frankly it feels like adding the poodle to the endangered species list -- takes issue with agent Jeff Kleinman (by name) for his comments in the Jan/Feb 2009 Poets & Writers group interview of four "young literary agents."

1. That took freakin forever! Seriously. The rant against him went up on Feb. 3 ... but I read the article in Poets & Writers at Christmas. I actually had to hunt around my apartment for the magazine( it was buried under a stack of papers that need grading). All of a sudden, six weeks after the printing, there's issue being taken with it? Apparently not everyone got that whole "instant communication" memo regarding information and the use of the Internet.

2. The quoted statement was not that Kleinman hates the short story form but that they're boring and you [he] can't sell them in this market. I didn't find that whiny at all. Actually, I agreed with it.

First, it is hard to get involved in a new short story time and again. How much of yourself are you really willing to invest in a scene or setting or character that's not going to be around in twenty pages? If it disappoints you, there's no time, no place for it to make it up to you. It's a little bit like serial dating, knowing each time that you're never in it for the long haul. That wears on a person.

As a book-loving person, I need to say that I've only paid money for two single author short story collections in my life; both were required for class. I've checked a few dozen out of the library -- frequently collections by multiple authors like Best American Non-required Reading -- but I don't want to pay money for them any more than I want to pay for a box of chocolates I know is half coconut. When you don't end up finishing half the stories (chocolates) in the box, you really start to wonder why you paid for a whole box in the first place.

But that's only addressing the economic issue. I think the bigger issue is the fact that there's that much damn coconut.

I've had many discussions with Tanya over the past few months about this crazy notion that somehow got instilled in our brains: that to be "good" literary writers, to be "good" little MFAers, we have to write "serious" stories. So we kill off our characters, we rape them, we make them mentally unstable, we kill their kids, abort their babies, gag them when they should speak, we take away their money and hand them drug problems instead ... all because we need to be serious, serious, serious. We think we need to write about weighty topics in a nitty-gritty manner. It get so disgustingly realistic that we hit our readers' gag reflexes.

And, frankly, it pisses me off.

It also makes me not want to read short stories, because of the prevalence of this newspaper meets dirty realism stuff with a few hints of the insanely obscene thrown in. I just read a story in workshop where the narrator decides to tell the reader that his wife's nipples tasted like potato chips. Yeah. Not something I'm interested in paying money for.

Short story writers have been torturing the form for years -- not even Alice Munro is completely able to escape my scorn on this count. I'm sick of "art" being "what's good for you" not "what you enjoy." Why does the short story have to be dense and difficult? I know, I know, making every word count gets thrown around a lot, but why does counting mean it can't read easily? Why does making every word count have to taste like fiber supplement? Why are we drinking down heinous short stories saying it's good for us! when even real, honest to god fiber supplement is getting a face lift?

**(is coconut, by chance, fibrous? wouldn't it be sweet if it really was and all my half-ass, zany metaphors actually flowed together?)**

Are there some gems of short stories out there? Yes. I'm not debasing the form just what's been done to it. Those gems are far outweighed by tortured prose, much of it churned out by MFA programs instilling the same feeling in their students that's making me sick of "serious."

3. I take greater issue with agent Zuckerbrot's comment "[w]hat about the people who say, 'I don't have time to read a novel'? Short story collection! You can start and finish in a short period of time." I hate to point out the obvious here, but a 200 page short story collection takes as long (or longer) to read as a 200 page novel. Are we meant to assume that she meant you can finish a single short story in a short period of time? Yes. But if that's her point, then why buy a collection? Get a subscription to One Story they only send you one story a month. [The ex-law student in me refuses to let logic errors slip past.]

Are these nice things I'm saying about short story collections? No. But I'm sick of the fiber's good for you! pep talk the short story gets. If it tastes like bark, I'm not eating it. If it reads like bark, I'm not reading it.

Am I still writing short stories? I have to; I'm being graded on it. But I don't think I've ever thought of myself as a "short story-ist." I'm a writer, and the short form is a place where I can gain the technical skills to do so.


In more upbeat news from the same edition of P&W, one of the 12 featured "debut poets" is giving a reading at WMU this spring. Jericho Brown will be reading from his collection Please. I've requested the collection (again, from the library) and hopefully I'll get a look at it before the reading.

Highly Recommended