Thursday, April 07, 2011

Conflicts of Interest: A. J. Somerset

Over at Open Book Toronto, Nathaniel Moore interviews A. J. Somerset:

Do you think it's easier to market a novel over a short fiction collection?

I think that a novel is unquestionably easier to sell than a short story collection, simply because a novel is about something. A short story collection is about a dozen or so somethings, so it's hard to put a hook into the general reader. If you look at the success of Annabel, before the awards season, almost all of the discussion surrounded what it's about. People praised it first and foremost for its subject, called it necessary and essential. George Murray called it "dangerous," a risible remark. The book really doesn't challenge its audience, but they get to talk about how bold the subject is. How can a short fiction collection, no matter how accomplished, compete with this?

The readership of short stories, Alice Munro notwithstanding, is restricted to people who appreciate the short story as a form. It's a small readership, but dedicated. If you choose to write short stories, you simply won't get much sales unless you're shortlisted for an award. Mind you, the same seems to hold true of the novel in Canada's dismal literary culture.

The sad thing is that novels are sold on what they're about, when they should be about more than just one thing. You have three hundred pages to allow the story to expand and to swallow all of life, but our novels so rarely do this, because we don't demand it of them. Our best short stories do. I was reading Alistair MacLeod's As Birds Bring Forth the Sun recently. Those stories are huge. They encompass so much. And yet we let a novel get away with being so small in its concerns. The novel has so much room to breathe, and so often, it doesn't. We should hold the novel to a higher standard.

What do you personally prefer to read?

I'm not sure that I have a preference. I'm fairly omnivorous, except that I don't really read genre fiction these days. That's what television is for, my genre fix. Also, it's only in the past couple of years that I've gone out of my way to read a lot of Canadian writers and keep up with what people are writing in this country. I'm suspicious of CanLit as a category, when you consider that Canada has the population of California; if Californians went on and on about their regional literature in the way some Canadians do, you'd rightly dismiss them as crackpots.

I do prefer short novels. I haven't read William Vollmann, and I'm not sure I can bring myself to. There's an unfortunate tendency in some quarters to rate a novel by its utility as a blunt instrument during a home invasion: if it's that thick and heavy, it must be good. Or, more accurately, if it was that much of a chore to read, then you must be real gosh-awful smart to have got through it. To me, every page over three hundred had better be worth it. If you write a 450-page novel, you'd better have a vision 450 pages wide. No number of sly pop-culture references can justify the longevity of The Simpsons; it's the same joke a thousand times. The same applies to books; the more time you take up, the more you should have to say. If you think you need 450 pages to get it done, try condensing it into a screenplay. You don't have that much time; people will walk out of the movie. Too many novels are sold by weight, not volume; you get the sense that there was some settling of the contents during shipping.

For the full interview please go here.

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