Short Stories: Writers Talk About The Form To Anis Shivani

We asked the writers these questions: What do you like about writing short stories, and if you also write novels, how do you compare the writing?
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We're happy to bring you our first installment of the Short Story Symposium where you'll find new, unpublished fiction.

For lovers of the short story, this symposium should be a real treat (look for more installments soon, including T. C. Boyle, Tao Lin, Belle Boggs, Lori Ostlund, Anne Sanow, Marisa Silver, Alyson Hagy, Sherrie Flick, Ben Greenman, Blake Butler, Aamer Hussein, Lavanya Sankaran, Justin Taylor, Deb Olin Unferth, Laura van den Berg, and others). Whether already well-known or just getting established, these are some of our best short-story practitioners. Enjoy their thoughts, watch or listen to them read or being interviewed, and read their new fiction. Writers of different styles, from domestic realism to gritty postmodernism, share a diversity of opinion.

We asked the writers these questions: What do you like about writing short stories, and if you also write novels, how do you compare the writing? What are some of your most important models for short story writing, and have these influences changed over time? Does the short story make fewer demands on a writer than a novel? Who are some of the most important short story writers today? Do you read short stories from other languages, and if so, do you notice a difference from the American aesthetic? How do you chart your own development as a short story writer? What can be done to strengthen the art of the short story in America?

Don Lee is the author of a story collection, Yellow, as well as two novels, Wrack and Ruin and Country of Origin--all from W.W. Norton. He teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Temple University.

Watch Don being interviewed about Wrack and Ruin on "CityLine," WCVB, Boston:

Listen to Don read "A Preference for Native Tongue" for the Four Stories Series.

Read "Price of Eggs in China" from Don's collection Yellow.

Don shares an unpublished excerpt from his novel in progress, Every Now and Then:

Don: Writing novels--especially the first drafts of them--is a mindfuck. It's a long, long haul, a marathon, a slog that's interspersed with (very) occasional bursts of inspiration. Mostly, though, it's misery. You're just trying to hang on, just trying to grind it out to the finish, and the entire way, you worry. You worry that you'll get lost, way off-track, and have to start over. You worry that you won't have the stamina and you'll bonk, and everything will fizzle into incoherence. You worry the pages you've amassed are shit. You worry you will have to quit--who were you kidding, you never had the balls for this. You worry that it will never be over. Yet you make yourself push on, desperately clutching to the hope that all this work will lead somewhere.

Writing stories, in comparison, is a leisurely delight, a walk in the park. Even if you don't know where you're going with a story, you know the project will be finite, there will be an end. Not to say writing a story is easy (and, in fact, it requires more intense concentration, more care and artistry), it feels entirely doable, manageable, because it will not take two or three or four years of your life. It will take, instead, months or perhaps, if one's lucky, weeks. You have time. You can spend three hours on a single sentence, trying to get it just right, perfect--a wonderful luxury, the kind of dawdling that's usually impossible with a novel.

Another difference. In a story, you feel freer to experiment--with language, with structure. Moreover, you're welcome to indulge in some very unsavory subjects and characters. The latter is more of a risk with novels. It might alienate readers, and the general attitude among American publishers is to discourage the impulse--a shame, I feel. Frank O'Connor, in his seminal volume The Lonely Voice, said, "There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness." The short story, he went on, is especially suited for portraying "submerged population groups," "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society." In other words, the short story should be especially suited for the population of the U.S., a nation of misfits and loners.

So then, particularly in this quick-hit, attention-deficit era, it's curious that the short story is not more popular, and that publishers are not more supportive of story collections. I blame high schools, teaching the same old stodgy standbys, so most of the public only associates the form with boredom. Yet when new collections do come out, there is interest. They get attention, reviews, even sales. There are readers out there who appreciate them, and the level of craft and invention in stories by young writers has, if anything, only gotten better. Also enlivening is the number of small presses that have cropped up recently, fearlessly investing in the form. Alas, by dint of their size, their reach is limited. It's the mainstream publishers that need to catch up--a familiar and perennial complaint. I say to them, to anyone else who is not yet a convert: Do not be afraid to submerge yourself. Get unsavory. Get dirty.

Richard Burgin is the author of The Identity Club (Ontario Review, 2005) and The Conference on Beautiful Moments (Johns Hopkins, 2006). He has edited Boulevard for 25 years.

Watch Richard read at Temple University in 1991 (this is appearing online for the first time):

Temple University Dec5 1991:

Watch Richard read at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2006 (also appearing online for the first time):

Read part of Richard's new story in progress, "Flame":

Richard: Isaac Bashevis Singer (with whom I had the good fortune to do a book of conversations) told me that he considered the short story a superior literary form to the novel because
in it the writer can more clearly achieve literary perfection. He felt the novel was a story, only a longer, more complicated one, and thus, because of its length, the writer generally makes more aesthetic mistakes, than in a story. Jorge Luis Borges, with whom I also did a book of interviews, felt the same way. I, myself, wouldn't say the story form is superior to the novel, but it is certainly its equal. One also gets the satisfaction of completion more often with the short story. (I've published 7 story collections but only two novels.) Finally, it's also true that I've had more success as a short story writer than as a novelist, which also influenced to a degree what I focused on.

There are as many different kinds of great stories as there are great novels so even my short list of most important stories is pretty diverse and would certainly have to include, in no particular order, Chekhov's "The Lady with the Pet Dog," Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Dostoevsky's "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," Tolstoy's "Master and Man," Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," Joyce's "The Dead," Faulkner's "That Evening Sun," Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-lighted Place," Crane's "The Blue Hotel," Carver's "Cathedral," Beckett's "The Expelled," Singer's "The Bus," O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and Borges' "The Aleph." That's, of course, just a skeletal list. If this were a symposium on the long story or novella (my favorite form) I'd certainly include "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," "Notes from Underground," "The Metamorphosis" and Thomas Bernhard's neglected masterpiece, "Concrete." Over time, I think this list would continue to expand, not contract. The old classics, I find, are more relevant than ever.

The short story is just as demanding a form as the novel, though the demands are different. A novelist has to develop a sustained story with (generally speaking) more characters and complications than in a short story. A short story writer, on the other hand, has the challenge of thinking and writing in a very condensed way (not as easy as it may sound, especially in our era of endless verbiage, as if the whole world is a talk show). It is equally difficult to be excellent at either. In my case, I began as a novelist and found (still find) it difficult to write in the condensed form of short stories. Even at present, my stories sometimes still have a novelistic feel to them--that is, my characters often evolve, a longer period of time goes by than is typical in a story, and I sometimes tell my short stories from multiple points of view, all techniques associated with the novel.

The names William Trevor and Alice Munro leap to mind as the most important models, as do Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Dixon, but rather than list the usual suspects, I'd like to mention some of our most important story writers who are under-publicized whether because of youth or simply because of literary injustice. I'm thinking of Paul Ruffin, Eric Miles Williamson, Marc Watson, Brian Allen Carr, George Williams, Nathan Leslie, Anis Shivani, Colin Flemming, Elizabeth Ornsdorf, Glenn Blake, Giles Harvey, and Jean McGarry, among many others.

Most of my favorite writers don't live in the United States and don't write in English. Generally speaking, European and Latin American writers are more at ease with ideas like Dostoevsky, Borges, Sartre, etc. than their American counterparts and at the same time have more extravagant metaphorical imaginations like Kafka or Borges. Americans tend to concentrate and be very good at rendering raw, direct experience.

I began by writing 1st person stories, though my monologues only rarely drew directly from my personal experience. For example, my monologists were sometimes women. I then began experimenting with multiple narrators and multiple points of view. Now, I feel that any technique a novelist uses can be equally valid for a short story writer, and I let the story "choose" its method of narration as naturally and spontaneously as possible.

The United States probably has more literary magazines and small presses than the rest of the world combined, so we can't really fault the little magazines and presses. The only thing that could really make a difference is if "major" media outlets and publishing companies opened their doors (through shame perhaps? I doubt it) to publishing more short stories. The short story, like jazz and basketball is one of the few things Americans, or some of them, anyway, have mastered. We ought to be celebrating that more often.

Dawn Raffel's most recent short story collection is Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (Dzanc Books). She has just completed a memoir in vignettes.

Dawn reads from Further Adventures in the Restless Universe:

Read Dawn's story from Further Adventures in the Restless Universe. And another story.

Dawn: I have written two collections of stories and one novel. What I love about stories is that you can begin with an image, a feeling, or a phrase and see where it leads you. It's a journey without a map. With a novel, although you will encounter surprises along the way, you need a clearer sense of structure and story from the outset.

I read stories voraciously, often with admiration, but I try to avoid models.

The story makes different demands on the writer. The story is a sprint in which every step and every breath and every flicker of an eyelash matters; a novel is a marathon, a test of stamina, faith, and will.

Some of the most important short story writers today are the most important short story writers of yesterday. Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Grace Paley, and Tillie Olsen (yeah, I'm picking just the women right now) are gone but their work isn't. If I get started on "today's writers" I'm going to inadvertently omit people, but I'm going to cite Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, Antonya Nelson, Stuart Dybek, Amy Hempel, Jim Shepard, Diane Williams, Terese Svoboda, Brian Evenson, Michael Kimball, Yannick Murphy--writers whose work could be mistaken for no one else's. I am excited about a generation of newer writers, including Justin Taylor, Robert Lopez, Laura van den Berg, Kyle Minor, Matt Bell, Kim Chinquee...there's a whole army of brave souls coming down the pike who are going to break all the rules and our hearts along with them.

Short stories originally written in other languages feel less workshopped than a lot of what's published by mainstream American publishers.

I'd like to take a machete to the notion that writing stories is practice for "the real thing"--the novel. A story is not a miniature novel. They're two different forms.

To Be Continued...

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