Robbie has asked us "Short Stories: Why?" and he has done so at the height of Short Story Month, the very apex, in a post crowned by the official Short Story Month logo. I was tempted when I read his post to remind the readers that I do not necessarily agree with everything anyone says on my blog, which is something I am sometimes tempted to post after Robbie posts because he is a funny, provocative guy who likes to Stir Shit Up. But then I decided not to disown his post because a) that would be a dick move, you guys already know I don't agree with everything that gets said here, to the extent you give a damn what I think at all, and b) he said some nice thing about one of my stories, though it was one that has sadly not yet found a home and may never, and c) because actually I do kind of agree with it, maybe to the surprise of nobody.
This is to say that as a "form" I find the short story pretty confusing. It may be my least favorite genre of writing, to be totally honest, and mainly for the reasons Robbie identifies: I often feel as if people are writing and publishing short stories because short stories are what you write and publish. As Robbie says, I don't think most of the venues that publish short fiction have asked themselves why they are doing that, and I don't think most people who write them really know why either. Short fiction has been reduced to a pedagogical tool; it is, explicitly, how you "walk before you run." It is manageable. It is nonthreatening. It is an institution. It is shrinking, because this is convenient for both college instructors and magazine publishers: it is becoming less expensive in terms of time and space because this is what the market demands. Insofar as we define "the market" as "anyone but readers."
Why, then, are we participating in Short Story Month 2011? Why do we run a magazine that will publish quite a lot of short fiction? Why did Tracy and I spend the last two and a half years working on Puerto del Sol, publishing the same? I would submit that Hobart is why. Or at least Hobart is an example of why
Hobart describes itself as "another literary journal," and there are ways beyond the literal in which this is true. Hobart skews (in the issues I have read) closer to the aesthetics of magazines called The ________ Review than do most of the "indy lit" scene's heavy hitters; the stories are not strictly realist, but they often operate in something recognizable as at least adjacent to the literary realist mode. You might mistake the magazine for a member of this bland set if you don't actually bother reading it. What sets Hobart apart is that its editors have clearly asked themselves why short stories and they have come up with an answer. They more or less exclusively publish short fiction, and they take the time to choose things that are interesting, that are well-made, that are (above all) fun to read. I saw founding editor Aaron Burch on a panel at AWP 2010 and I think he said the word "rad" about 3,405 times in five minutes. I knew this was a guy who enjoyed enjoyment, who loved loving, who wanted to read good things. I was excited when my copies of Hobart 12 arrived, and I am excited now to glance through its pages and talk about a few of the stories. I guess the issue is not officially out and on sale yet but here is the website anyway; consider this a preview.
The first story I want to note for now is Robert J. Baumann's "What Can Be Done," a story about two sixteen year old girls who work three days a week at the morgue for the summer. This is an entry into a familiar genre of story, perhaps the one I see most often in slush: the "description of an unusual job" story. These often concern house painting, golf course maintenance, airplane security work, or, as in this case, the handling of dead or dying people. Baumann's writing is strong enough that he could simply work within the confines of the genre and create an entirely satisfying story, but the story accumulates a sort of crippling self-consciousness: it knows that it's a late entry into an extremely familiar genre, and so it hints at the inadequacies of its own research (one of the girls introduces a morgue factoid that she found on the Internet, where we suspect the author has done his own fact finding -- the other girl mocks her). It remarks on its own clichés and then revises them until they become fresh again.
In theory this should be too clever by half, too self-conscious for pleasure, but it works. Baumann's prose and careful choice of details (both banal and fresh), as filtered through his narrator's searching for a way to tell this story, creates a sense of quiet desperation. Perhaps my favorite passage from the story:
Sometimes, something dry and brown crusts over the linoleum tiles on the floor in front of the wall of chambers. The two people will have to clean this with a small brush. This has been done, but maybe not in a morgue; maybe that doesn't matter: anytime someone describes something disgusting being scrubbed with a toothbrush it counts against how many times it can be described again.
So maybe instead they use a special gun that only shoots air to break up the crust. They have to wear masks that make them look like animals.
The story is gradually crippled by its own self-awareness, leading to a series of turns that would not only spoil the fun but sound terrifically stupid if I were to describe them to you here. The surprise, for me, is that though the closing section is under-motivated and ridiculous (the girls make a rather big mistake on the basis of their shared knowledge that, this being the end of the story, something definitive needs to happen) I find it weirdly touching. The last two sentences of the story are probably, in a very real sense, two of the stupidest sentences I've ever read in a short story. They are also wonderful and weirdly touching. You don't publish a story this weird and subtly daring by accident. You do it by asking yourself how you got here, what you meant to accomplish.
Rob Roensch has a story, "I Was a Math Student," which explores the mysteries of a particular high school math class. The mysteries are difficult to name -- perhaps the deepest mystery is how the students, including the narrator, came to care so much about math -- but they are there, on the page, or sort of hovering above it. Who is the strange new student who seems to attend school only for the sake of achieving perfect grades (and then better-than-perfect) on the tests written by their teacher, Mr. Brook? Could he have known that when he paired his students by gender and alphabet (boy-girl, boy-girl) he would ignite some dozen little romances? This story is justified by the dialog at its beginning alone, as the teens fall in love via math class:
Then, a few nights later, the first phone call, maybe a little late: just to verify 5c: x is negative 1, right? And 6b: An asymptote at 5?
And then the next night, later: 280 square feet? Does that sound right? Is everyone else in your house asleep? It sounds quiet. The phone does. I mean when you're not talking.
And: I think sometimes I can hear my calculator working. There's this tiny, tiny click when it gives me the answer. Like one drop of rain.
Why did I call you? I had a question.
Right now I am poor enough that I mainly get my literary magazines by contributing to them, so I will go ahead and admit it: I have a story in this issue, it is more or less about Metroid. It is adjacent to four Brian Oliu pieces about Super Mario Bros. and Ninja Gaiden. Leaving aside the virtues of my story, I think the decision to publish no less than five consecutive pieces -- fifteen pages! -- of writing about Nintendo games tells you most of what you need to know about Hobart: they believe that video games are rad. And I agree. Brian's pieces are, as always, awesome. One of them is essentially a blank page, and that's awesome.
There are several stories here that come in sections, also: by Aubrey Hirsch, by Jon Chopan, Melinda Moustakis, and Dave Housley. Why does a story seem to gain so much when we explicitly divide it? Perhaps because it suggests they have asked themselves why. Section headings tell us from the outset that the writer knows her writing is finite: that it will have to end someday, and that in this case, in this short story, the ending will probably come sooner than we think. They lend the story a sense of aboutness, a clarity of purpose. We know that it was heading somewhere when we found it. We suspect it will continue walking as we join it.
I meant to write about more of these stories, but I'm moving across the country in a week. I am looking for work. I am tired. I love you.