We continue our discussion with writers about the special skills involved in writing short stories, their experience moving back and forth between the short story and the novel, their predominant influences and the models they deem most worthy of emulating, and what they think can be done to strengthen the short story in America today.
T. C. Boyle reads from Wild Child:
T. C. Boyle: A short story is like a toothache and you must drill it and fill it. A novel is more like bridgework. Flannery O'Connor is my original God (presuming that God can be female, and I don't really see why not). Her story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which I discovered as a college sophomore in a dusty old anthology, revolutionized my thinking about what is possible vis a vis comedy and tragedy. The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. Some of the most important story writers today are Toby Wolff, Roddy Doyle, Sherman Alexie and all the writers I included in my 2003 anthology of stories, Doubletakes. As for stories from other cultures, sometimes, of course. But it's hard to generalize. Italo Calvino sure turns me on. Ditto Borges. And Kafka. I began short and went long. In my first collection, Descent of Man, I was more interested in design and maniacal humor than in character. After having written thirteen novels to go along with my nine collections, I think I've learned to write a fuller story, as I hope will be apparent in my most recent collection, Wild Child. What can be done to strengthen the short story in America? I'm working on it in my basement lab even as we speak: a supersonic ray that will neutralize all television transmission forever.
Sherrie reads her story, "The Lake":
Read Sherrie's unpublished story "Porch Light":
Listen to a radio interview with Sherrie.
Sherrie: I write very-short short stories--2,000 words or less. In these stories I try to condense a vivid sense of the world into a small space. I compare the process to shoving an angry black bear into a lunch bag, without ripping the bag.
My goal is to write a short story (often less than a page) that seems full to readers long after they walk away from it. I want them to think back on the story years later and add their own sub-plots, characters, and details. Ideally, the story expands beyond the page, and the reader is active in that expansion.
Writing a novel is a much different process. Instead of holding back--working with a fragile amount of space and condensing language to make effective and subtle suggestions--I open up the word spigot and, in doing so, the fictional world of the story. My sentence structure lengthens in the novel manuscript, and I enter into the challenge of evoking complex atmosphere with a bigger, more expansive sense of character on the page. It's like pulling the (still angry) bear back out of the bag without getting mauled.
Early on, Minimalism entranced me--Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel. My first flash fiction stories reflect this enchantment, sharing the same kind of clipped, stark dialogue and repressed emotion. As I came to read Brautigan, Kafka, Chekhov, and Baudelaire, I embraced some magical realist qualities and complex atmospheres in my work. Another earth-shattering literary moment came after reading Gertrude Stein. Modernism with its rule-breaking structures and acknowledgement of the reader's involvement with the text changed the way I viewed my own writing. It made the writing process more fluid to me, and it was exciting to see possibilities opening up on the page. After Minimalism and Modernism, discovering Stuart Dybeck's stories helped me see flash fiction in a new light. He employs fuller, more developed narratives, closer to those found in long short stories, with all of the elements intact--character, plot, setting, point of view--but compressed.
Short stories make different demands on a writer than novels. The kind of details used--and their effectiveness--changes. What works in a short story may not work in a novel and vice versa. They're obviously both writing forms, but to me they're as different as sculpting is to painting. A novel is a very physical project. It simply takes a long time to write 60,000 words--longer still to revise such a work. There's a different kind of big-world thinking that connects characters to plot to dialogue to setting. For me, the writing of short stories is more philosophical, requiring first a sound idea and a brave concept. That concept is then whittled down to smaller, more precise ideas and becomes a matter of describing the big world through a small window.
My revision process is tedious, whether it's for a short story or a novel. Word by word, sentence by sentence. Ripping everything apart, putting it back together. I change nearly every word in whatever I'm writing, usually more than twice. The same is true with sentence construction--I fiddle, then I fiddle again. In changing the words and sentences I am, of course, discovering new ideas and concepts. Unique relationships between characters and settings emerge. I'm discovering a richer fictional reality in short stories, which is limited by the window, while with the novel I'm able to step through the window and write the world more fully. I don't think one is better than the other. They are just very different representations of how fiction works.
My pick for the most important short story writer today would be Charles D'Ambrosio. My short list would include Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ron Carlson, Stuart Dybeck, Etgar Keret, Sean Lovelace, Laura van den Berg, Lex Williford, and Paul Yoon.
As for writers in other languages, one example is the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, whom I read and teach and admire. He does have an aesthetic different from American short story writers. He mixes violence with romance--absurdity and war. The kind of edgy, hip, important, unrealistic, magical romance that pervades his work remains uncommon in contemporary American short stories. He addresses the political through the domestic, often with humor, and I don't see American writers weaving these elements together as gracefully.
I started as a poet in high school and then college. I switched to fiction, baffled by poetic line breaks, and then obediently wrote 15-30 page stories for workshops. I received praise writing the length of stories required of me, but I was bored. I read Raymond Carver and then Gertrude Stein and every issue of The Quarterly edited by Gordon Lish and had my "Aha!" moment. I excitedly began writing tiny stories that made my workshop professors angry. Happy, in spite of their dismay, I dedicated myself to the craft of these tiny stories and started publishing them in literary journals like Quarterly West and North American Review. After 15 years of this and the publication of my chapbook of flash fiction I Call This Flirting and numerous anthology publications, including stories in two Norton anthologies, I had gained knowledge and skill in the genre. I then decided to write a novel to challenge myself and break out of my comfort zone. The result was Reconsidering Happiness. During the novel-writing process, I became obsessed with sentences in a new way--the crafting of them, their structure. Exploring the extremes helped me center on the basic building blocks of writing. As I revised the novel, I continued to write more short stories, tinier still. I've written a whole series that fit onto Post-It notes.
The art of the short story is alive and well in America. My advice: If you read a collection of short stories you like, share it with someone who isn't a writer. Chances are they'll read it and give it to someone else who isn't a writer. I say this not because I think you shouldn't recommend books to writers, you should, but because most writers have a stack of books they can't get through, and recommending a book to a writer is a bit like preaching to the choir. We need to introduce short stories to new audiences. Give your non-reading relatives and family members books as gifts. Put big, colorful bows on them. Do it year after year. Do not be daunted. In this way, you can help suck the short story out of its vacuum--help snap it free of its marginalized literary status. Find small presses who publish outstanding work (Dzanc Books, Graywolf, Rose Metal Press, Sarabande), and support them. Praise them. Buy books, book bags, T-shirts. Paste and place short stories in unlikely locations--bars, barbershops, doctors' offices, AAA. Don't hold short stories too near. Don't be pretentious. Say, "Hey, read this story! You'll love it," to the Fed-Ex guy, to your neighbor who yells at you when you park in front of his house. Make the literary world bigger and nicer and more fun, and people will follow. I believe this. And I practice it, too.
Blake: I write with a brain bleeping in and out, so a lot of the time even the longer things I write are composed of strings of fragments or little ideas. It keeps a continual refresh rate on what is coming out, and opens more area to do more with language. But at the same time I really prefer when short pieces string up into larger things. Learning to chain bigger and bigger machines out of the little pieces is like programming a computer or something. A lot of things called flash or just little hunks alone leave me mostly cold.
I think a text demands of someone whatever they allow it to demand of them, which can be as deep as water or as deep as ice. I like when whatever length something is it feels like something difficult to lift, or connected to something larger well behind it, which I do not mean in the manner of take-away meaning or idea. A lurking. Gross force. Which can be three words in the right spot.
Brian Evenson is one I have learned quite a bit about that prowess of language and image sentence by sentence from in short forms. Beckett is another, so many strings in that machine. A younger writer Sean Kilpatrick totally kills me with how he can manipulate syntax and make you feel like you read a novel in a sentence. Joyelle McSweeney. Aase Berg, Amelia Gray, Ken Sparling, Diane Williams. What
all of these and other writers with that AAHHHH behind them have in common, which can be pointed at perhaps as a way to strengthen not only a story but any writing or language, is the attention to throwing heavy milk into each syllable and how they bang off of the other, but also how they surprise you by where they find themselves arriving. A lot of this, for me, can be led onto by the writer his or her self having no idea during the creation, and thereby bumping into things along the way and surprising themselves, as if they are actually out walking along among the sentences, bruising up their arms and ass.
Justin Taylor is the author of the short story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and editor of the short fiction anthology, The Apocalypse Reader. His first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, is forthcoming in February 2011.
Hear Justin talk about his work.
Justin: When I'm writing stories I've usually got a few going at once, in various states of completion, and on a given day I can choose which one to focus on--or kind of read through all of them and take the lay of the land that way. For the novel, I needed to develop an entirely new approach. Without bogging you down in the minutiae of my "process," the novel did get written--it will be out this coming February. But I wouldn't go around boasting that I know how to write a novel now. What I know is how to write that novel, which is a pretty obsolete skill to have, since I won't ever need to write that novel again. But all writing is like that--short story, novel, book review, or an email. Writing it teaches you how to write it.
Influence is always changing, which is as it should be--and sometimes it's an author's whole catalog, or a school of writing; other times it's just a single book. Donald Barthelme was--and still is--a very big deal to me; and that goes for all of his work, but especially the stories, which have remained some of my all-time favorites, even as my taste has undergone a more general shift away from the "experimental" or "postmodern." Over the past two or three years, I became interested in Gordon Lish's acoustical and aesthetic theories of the sentence. Barry Hannah, Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel, Christine Schutt. Just to name a few. Lately I've been revisiting Flannery O'Connor, and also Hemingway. I'm going to teach his last collection, Winner Take Nothing, in a class this fall.
The demands the shorty story makes are of a different sort. The novel demands sustained attention, and that you keep track of a potentially large range of people, places, and situations for what may become a protracted period of time (you don't read War & Peace in a single afternoon, or a single month for that matter, so you'd better learn to keep your Russians straight). A short story asks to be read in a single sitting; it offers you the possibility of a complete artistic experience in about as much time as it would take to watch an episode of a sitcom. In exchange, the story demands that you become a fuller participant in said experience. There won't be any long authorial seduction of the reader; you need to be primed when you show up. And no chapters full of backstory, set-pieces, window-dressing, etc. Of course, all readers should be alert and dedicated all the time, but a novel is more likely to forgive you a brief lapse in attention here and there--a short story will just spit you back out, the end.
Jim Shepard also springs to mind, along with several of the names I mentioned above in the question about influence. But I tend to think in terms of individual collections, or even individual stories. Here are five of each. Books: Normal People Don't Live Like This by Dylan Landis; Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte; Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders; Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson; A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer by Christine Schutt. Stories: "Heaven" by Mary Gaitskill (in Bad Behavior); "We Just Came Up from San Francisco" by Daniel Menasche (uncollected, in Tin House #32); "My Hard Bargain" by Walter Kirn (in My Hard Bargain); "Caroline" by Eva Talmadge (uncollected, in Subtropics #7); "The Ash Gray Proclamation" by Dennis Cooper (in Ugly Man). And this is NOT to suggest that the stories by Cooper, Gaitskill, and Kirn are in any way one-hit wonders--they're great books, it's just that these particular stories seem especially powerful to me.