Sunday, December 8, 2013

I just figured out what I don't like about short stories

I don't read short stories very often. Of course I've read some great stories in my life but in general, I don't seek them out; I don't buy collections of short stories and I don't flip to them in magazines. And Reader, I only just now figured out what it is about collections of short stories that turn me off. I realized it while reading The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg (which is very good); I had just finished one story and was starting another and it hit me: I don't like beginnings and endings in fiction. This is true for novels as well. It generally takes 3 to 4 times as long as it should to get through the first 8 to 10 pages of a novel, given my usual middle-of-the-book reading speed; it's like there's this big activation energy I have to overcome, all these additional resources I have to put into figuring out the characters, setting, tone, what's going on, what's the style, how do I read this, etc. Then you ease into it and it's smooth sailing for at least 150 pages. Unfortunately, I tend to get antsy toward the ends of things. I think it's because I like finishing books; it gives me a sense of accomplishment and means I can start something new. So I rush a little toward the end and miss things; too, I overanalyze them, because writers fret over endings and I'm more likely to question the decisions there and feel like something falls flat or feels false. So there's a certain amount of dread as I approach the last 10-15 pages of the book.

So it seems obvious now, doesn't it? Collections of short stories multiply the beginnings and endings. For me, it's exactly like the choice between a direct flight and one where you have to change planes three times. The take-offs and landings are the most disruptive (and dangerous!) part. This is why I couldn't finish the The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, whom I normally love; aside from the bloated, show-offy prose, it's constructed in such a way that you basically start over with a brand-new novella (new characters, setting, story line, etc.) every 80 pages or so – right when I was beginning to feel invested – with no closure on the previous story. This was utterly infuriating. (Still waiting for someone who has finished this book to explain the point of all that to me and why I shouldn't throw it into a fire.)

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I've been picking up some short fiction lately and liking it. I keep thinking about a story I read a couple of weeks ago, "Teen Culture" by Elizabeth Ellen from the Summer 2012 issue of American Short Fiction. Not a good title IMO, but a great story. Mark Cugini recently asked, repeatedly, for Twitter to explain "alt lit" to him:
Here was my answer:
By these standards, "Teen Culture" is alt lit. But don't let that scare you off. It's in her book Fast Machine.

Another standout: "The Moody Pencil" by Rachel B. Glaser from the second issue of Uncanny Valley (Mike Meginnis and Tracy Bowling's neat magazine). I read half of it before bed one night, put it aside, then finished it like three months later. It begins unassumingly and then does weird, wild stuff with time and reality that made me think of some of the more "out there" fiction by Joy Williams (one of my favorites foreverrr).


And I've been spending my mornings this weekend on the couch under John's old comforter (it's so freezing our heat's not getting the apartment warmer than 62) drinking creamy coffee and reading The Isle of Youth. My favorite so far is "Opa-Locka," which is about two sisters who start a PI firm. I love how LVDB portrays relationships as accidental and in any case temporary configurations of essentially isolated and confused individuals. Also, you should read this great interview she did with The Believer:
LVDB: Do you know what’s been driving me crazy lately? People asking why I’m not smiling in my author’s photo, or knocking the photo because I look imposing and unapproachable, as opposed to “warm.” Do people ask you why you’re not smiling in your author’s photo? Or get requests for a different photo because you don’t look friendly enough? I get different versions of this a lot. As a result, I am pretty well determined to never smile in another photo ever again. 
BLVR: No, I’ve never been asked why I’m not smiling or asked to send a different author photo. I’m a thin, white, heterosexual man.

29 comments:

  1. I think I feel you, but not about the beginning endings, the same thing about about world building... I like going deeper and deeper and making all possible connexions in a piece. Some short stories (highly symbolic ones) have layers and tons of objective correlatives and other stuff I can savor and replay and obsess over... but many many many are thumbnails of worlds I'd love to spend more time in (and by world I also mean internal worlds of characters etc). when they're over I just feel robbed. that, or I wish they'd done their sketching even faster and more archetypically (russell edson/lydia davis style). I'm a poem/novel gemini. x-treme. x-tremolo. give me my overtones!

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    1. Ah, do you think perhaps there's something kinshippy about poems and novels more than poems and short stories?

      Diane Williams' stories remind me more of poems than fiction, they're so bizarre and lyrical in their sensibility.

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    2. I do. Poems are bones. Novels have flesh. Short stories are film.

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  2. elizabeth ellen read from that story at our most recent three tents reading (asked to read by mark cugini, naturally) and it was SO GOOD. i'm usually innerly snoozing during fiction readings (sorry, fiction writers) but it's SUCH A good story.

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    1. I picked up meaning to read the Roxane Gay story (still haven't gotten to it) but read the first paragraph of the EE story instead and "couldn't put it down." Totally good!

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  3. I haven't read a huge quantity of short stories, though there are some writers whose short stories I really like. Hemingway, for instance -- I have his Complete Short Stories at arm's reach at this moment. I also like John Steinbeck's book of short stories The Long Valley, I've found it (at certain times in my life) a deeply soul-healing book.

    Also the short stories of Meridel LeSueur (gathered in several collections over the years). And Richard Wright's stories in his book "Uncle Tom's Children." (Richard Wright's stories were the first writing I remember reading -- I would have been 12 years old at the time -- where the people in the stories talked like people I actually knew.)

    And the short stories of Graham Greene that are gathered in a collection called (if I remember right) "Twenty-One Stories." (I really like Graham Greene's writing in general.)

    And two others who come to mind are James Joyce's stories in Dubliners, and some of the short stories I've read by an Irish writer not well-known in the U.S., Liam O'Flaherty.

    There are also a bunch of science fiction short stories I've read and liked over the years, particularly stories by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison.

    I should say here that I don't read a huge amount of fiction, of whatever length. I has to be really compelling for me to stick with it. Probably at least three quarters of what I read, overall, is poetry, and this no doubt has something to do with why I don't read a lot of fiction. Only so many hours in a life.

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    1. By sheer page count I think I've read way more fiction than anything else! In fact we almost never get rid of poetry books, when culling our collection and trying to make more room on our bookshelves, because compared to the other books they take up so much less space.

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  4. The thing about short stories is that they're not long enough. The longer a story is, the more real it seems.

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    1. I do like longer short stories from time to time. But I am generally loathe to begin novels longer than 600 pages. Makes me feel like I'm devoting too much of my life to one thing or something.

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    2. My discipline keeps getting worse. In the last two months I've only finished four books because I keep starting so many new ones. It's out of control.

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    3. You know my thoughts on this, finishing books is overrated.

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    4. I feel obligated to finish Speedboat because it's effing boring and I'm apparently the only person who feels that way.

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    5. In my experience that's never a good idea. Just put it aside and come back to it later. you're not being a good reader when you're bored.

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    6. Pretty sure in this case it's the book's fault for being boring. I'm just mystified as to why anyone likes it.

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    7. I don't know, I believe in right place right time for books/readers. I also think something can be boring and still good.

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    8. I don't think it would make a difference with this one. It's an incoherent jumble of events and non sequiturs that so far don't seem connected in any way. It barely even has characters. If a book doesn't hold my interest, I call it boring. If it holds my interest, it's unboring by definition.

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    9. Sounds like Ashbery. Who said novels have to have characters?

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    10. I read poetry and novels for vastly different reasons. I can't think of a novel I've liked that doesn't have characters. Even if it's a single narrator/character wandering alone in the desert for the whole book, that's still better than nothing.

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    11. Right but that's your personal taste. How does that translate into not understanding why anyone else would like it?

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    12. Because I never understand why people have bad taste;)

      What I really don't understand is why I should bother to continue reading a book if there's no impetus to turn the page, no reason to want to find out what happens next. Unlike poetry, which need only exist in a continuous present, or some state outside of time, I want a piece of fiction to have a sense of forward motion.

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    13. Like I said, why not stop reading it?

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    14. That's what I would prefer. (And to have someone else write a negative review that I can just link to whenever someone asks my opinion.)

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  5. I read some fiction--possibly more than I realize; but for a long time I've felt that if you have poetry and philosophy, you don't really need fiction.

    The book of short stories that has pleased me most: Truman Capote's A Tree of Night and Other Stories.

    I'm not smiling as I write this. I'm a thin, white, heterosexual man, and I disburse smiles sparingly in general.

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    1. I smile a lot but of course the second I stop someone makes a remark.

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  6. I'm just the opposite, short fiction is where it's at b/c the ends are where all the power is. That's why when I write it's like microshorts. If I were a writer I'd just write ends all day.

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    1. Rose Metal (Kathy & Abby's press) puts out lots of stuff like that!

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    2. I'll send em one but tell them to be gentle.

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