Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 6

Classical convention prescribes an arc for the writer's career. One was to begin, as Virgil did, with smaller forms, and with modes that require you to know little about the world (like the pastoral). It's only as the writer matures that he or she was encouraged to tackles longer forms and more worldly subject matter. Then, at the peak of his powers, the writer may produce an epic (which, as Amanda Jernigan pointed out a couple weeks ago, is supposed to contain all the knowledge in the cosmos).

I mention this because I think there's a commonplace in the literary market these days, which suggests that a short story collection is only a preamble to the greater accomplishment of the novel. There's also been a lot of talk about the self-sufficiency of the short story as a genre. Where do you fall in this discussion? Should one master the short story before attempting a novel? Do you find you are encouraged to privilege longer forms in your own writing, and if so, by whom? How does one's approach to short fiction change if the form is seen as an end in itself?

Rebecca Rosenblum

I am not too fussed about this one, though I do hear a lot about it. The fact is, short story writers and novelists have the same aims: to push language, characterization, structure, and theme into something that a reader can see and hear and *feel* off the page. It's hard to do; I don't think you get a free pass in any format. If you move from one genre to another or keep plugging away at the genre you started with, you still need to grow and improve as an artist every time you approach the page. I definitely think that an immature novel has more in common with an immature short story collection than with a mature and successful novel.

Cathy Stonehouse

I fall firmly in the camp of the short story—and the short story collection—being an end in itself. This is not to diss the novel, which is a mighty form. However I believe “the novel” has become dominant simply because it is an effective economic product, a handy thing to buy and sell. Novels are the current literary currency. Fiction writers are encouraged to produce novels because these are the literary creations that are most economically recognized, easy (or easier) to sum up, promote, advertise and sell. Short fiction collections are simply harder to convert into sound bytes. This affects all levels of the literary community. I have written reviews for a serious literary journal that does not review short fiction collections because they are supposedly impossible to critique. In short, I do not believe novels are innately more serious, or larger in scope than stories, they just go on longer. Stories have a longer human history. Nevertheless some fiction writers are novelists: the novel is their form. Unfortunately many are not, but they write novels anyway because this is the acceptable literary coming of age.

Short fiction works differently from long fiction. It’s harder work to read, often, and involves more metaphor. It makes greater use of the unsaid, and by extension, makes more demands on the reader’s imagination. Good short fiction is dense and long-lasting, even though it may be deceptively slight. A drawing teacher once told me that a lot of Renaissance artists preferred their initial sketches and preparatory drawings to their final paintings, but had to produce the paintings because that was what their patrons wanted. The painting or fresco was the artistic currency of the day.

I have attempted to write novels, and hope to crack this nut one day, but not as a replacement for writing stories. It’s just a different genre. My imagination is pretty baroque, so I need strong limits to work in. It’s kind of like the three bears. I can’t fit my mind into poems so well any more but stories are just about right.

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