Revisiting the short story, and falling in love again

Superleggero means “Superlight”–in the realm of cars, superlight ain’t bad. It’s terrific.

The novel is widely regarded as the most desirable (and publishable) format of writing, at least for fiction. Ask a literary agent what she thinks of short story collections, and she’s likely to answer, “Whenever someone presents me with a short story collection, I ask if they can write a novel instead,” adding “Short stories just don’t sell.” (They don’t. A novel is considered a “best seller” when 5,000 copies are sold…a short story collection is considered a best seller if it sells 2,000 copies).

Additionally, the short story collections that do get published are with the understanding that the writer tackle and write a novel as a followup–take Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio, for starters. Jhumpa Lahiri proved that she is a much better short story writer, and yet she’s pressured to write a novel–the Holy Grail of published writers. At the end of the fiction finish line is: The novel, the novel, the novel, the novel. The novel!!!

I started, as so many fiction writers have, with writing short stories. Being in an MFA program also encourages the short story format; writing workshops are just so much friendlier to nurturing short stories. Yet, the novel is the penultimate product for a writer, despite this lack of support or scaffolding for the learning writer. So it is that many of us make the leap across the chasm, with great hope and few tools. It’s what we have been taught to aim for: The Novel. So for the last couple of years, I have been writing a novel.

But recent developments have made me unable to even look at my novel, let alone write my novel. In addition, reading novels is an entirely different sort of exercise for me now, as my cognitive skills return in different form and/or return slowly. So what have I been doing?

In addition to memoir and nonfiction, I have been reading short stories, and slowly returning to the realm of fiction through beginning attempts at short story writing. The short story has regained prominence in my writing life these days…and I wonder, “Do I really want to work on my novel?” Should I change my thesis from my novel to a collection of short stories?

Elsewhere, others are documenting their 10 Favorite Short Stories–it has awakened my thinkings about the short story genre. It has encouraged me to read more short stories; today I read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” courtesy of Literary Kitten’s Short Story Challenge. The story was amazing–I read it in the backseat of my car on a longish roadtrip today, in an eerie reflection of the short story’s similar setting. It pierced my psyche in all sorts of ways, this rich nugget of literature.

And yes, sometimes I remember the amuse bouche (short story) of an elegant and extraordinary 12 course meal more than I remember the entree (novel).

In the course of this “10 Favorite Short Stories” meme, someone (and I can’t remember who it was–so if you know who it was, please let me know so I can credit her (I’m pretty sure the person was a woman) properly) observed that the selection of the participants’ “10 Favorite Short Stories” has been incredibly diverse (as opposed to how a 10 favorite novels survey might come out). She concluded that short stories must pierce the psyche like no novel can, resulting in such a wide variety of choices.

Of course, this leads me to the observation of one of my writing professors/mentors, a poet and short story writer himself, during my first semester as an MFA student. “There’s nothing wrong with short stories you know,” he said with great weariness at the pressures of publishing. We all nodded blankly, our eyes focused past his shoulder on the novelistic horizon.

Now, nearly three years later, I think, “He’s right.”



Filed under Publishing, Reading, The Stroke, Writing

11 responses to “Revisiting the short story, and falling in love again

  1. i think that writing short stories should be part of a writer’s repertoire; even famous novelists like stephen king often write short stories in the midst of writing novels. in my mind, you can’t write a story expecting that the length is certain; a short story may take a life of its own and become a novel. or characters in one story spawns their own story…

    write on!

  2. I’ve been having similar thoughts. And on the side, apart from all my freelance busywork and also deciding to return to rewriting my novel, I’m putting together a short story collection. I realized this week that it’s further along than I’d been able to admit. Some of the stories were originally from the thesis I wrote in grad school. I had wanted so badly to write a novel then; it seemed to be the thing I was SUPPOSED to do. But now that I look on those pieces I see clearly how I should have been content with a short-story collection, how that’s naturally what the pieces were meant to be, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I know how impossible it will be to “sell”—I know this—and yet why am I even putting them together and calling it a collection? Because I love short stories so much. I love writing them, but more than that I love reading them. Short-story collections are some of my favorite things to read, as are anthologies and literary journals. I wish more people read short stories, I do. Maybe then more collections would be published.

    Anyway, great post. I wonder what your thesis will decide to be.

  3. no milk: yes–short story writing should be and is, a core part of writing regimen. i like your point about stephen king. additionally, Haruki Murakami also writes short stories in between his novel-writing (and only in between–it seems the two don’t overlap in his life, an interesting note).

    nova: you go! i’m rooting for your collection–and i’m rooting for others to read short stories again. maybe it will come in vogue again (i hope i hope) to embrace the short story.

  4. Funny, I always knew I wanted to write novels, and I am doing so, but I suspect I need to focus on the short story to develop craft.

    I find in my notes from January that I was struck by a Chekhov short story and went off for 2,000 words in my diary about it…

    I read both short stories AND novels. How can one NOT read short stories in reading good fiction? I do think some people’s skills are better at one form than the other. But that’s why it’s good to write a lot of books/stories – you get better at it. You practice the skills that don’t come naturally. Exercising muscles you don’t use develops those muscles; same with fiction (and poetry, plays, non-fiction)

  5. This seems a black and white way of thinking, in terms of getting published. I know getting a book of something published, in a book form, is the dream for most writers, but I like to think that short-form writing — essays, short stories, flash fiction, whatever — can be a stepping stone, at least for writers who are just starting out. It’s not easy to publish a collection of stories, no, but publishing one or two stories separately in lit magazines can help you sell a novel, and can definitely help you sell a collection of stories. It makes you a proven commodity, from the perspectives of agents and editors. I think all too often writers get caught up in these grander expectations (novel! book!) and it’s those that decide what the writer will work on… The whole publishing process focuses on these kind of end results, but the writer, I think, has to take small steps and write in the form that works for their voice.

  6. This is something I’ve been throwing around a little bit myself lately as I sit in the calm-before-the-query-letter storm after finishing my first novel. I “started” out by writing a handful of short stories, but after writing the novel they actually seem much harder. You have a much more limited space to get your point across, to build up a connection to the characters, to set the background and the scenery. Personally, I’m not looking for a challenge yet 🙂

    I don’t think that publishing should really be much of a concern when it comes to writing the story initially though. There’s plenty of venues for publishing when the time comes, but if you look at short stories straight off as “well, I’ll never sell this”, then you’re closing off what could well be a fantastic work.

  7. w

    Here’s a great article in The Guardian that touches on this, with mention of Yiyun Li and small presses being more willing to take on story collections (love Coffee House Press, for example).

  8. I found some great fiction book reviews. You can also see those reviews in Fiction short story

  9. Yeah, I’ve been working on short stories for a little over a year, and quite faithfully since Clarion West. Well, “short stories” as in, anything shorter than novels. Still some novellas in there, but, nothing in the way of a novel. I’ll be working on a novel this summer, though. Once I have about 10 or 15 stories on market, shooting from rejection to rejection.

  10. Hey- that ‘Susan’ up there is not me. It seems sort of spammish.

  11. Pingback: Where To? « Chocolate For Dogs

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