Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Short Stories: Why?

So it's Short Story Month and I seem to have a reputation as a hater of fiction or prose or short stories.  I don't.  I might hate 'mainstream' or 'academic' or 'literary' short stories, but not all stories or prose or fiction.  I actually love reading fiction and some of it is mainstream and some of it is academic and some of it is literary.  I loved Evan Lavender Smith's Avatar.  I loved this story by Roxane Gay.  I really liked All the Pretty Horses and Jesus Son is my favorite short story collection of all time.  I can't say why I like what I like though.  It's as if it comes at me and I just put it in my mouth and if it tastes ok, I swallow, and if it tastes really good, I keep eating and if it still tastes really good, I'll try something else when I'm finished.  

When Mike explained the idea of drama, I was dumfounded:  "OMG THAT'S SOOOOO EASY!!!"  The characters could want anything!  And anything could stand in their way!  From a craft perspective I don't get how they (stories) work, and so I don't know why I like them.  It's a very pre-enlightenment approach:  I don't know how this thing works, it must be magic/a god/God.

I may not know how it works, but I can tell if a story works.  One of my favorite stories that I read in my two semesters (one workshop, one form and technique) of story training at NMSU, was not a story assigned to be read by a teacher, but one turned in by Mike for a workshop.  I can't remember the name of it, but it was about a guy in a post-economic-apocalypse world where camps of starving people butt up against normal middle class-ians.  The main character talks to himself in the second person and the third person and the plural first person and the first person singular (and there might have been more).  The POV was complicated, but it worked:  this man was starving and out of his goddamned mind.  It made sense to me and felt alive and fresh with words and emotions in ways most stories don't.  Most stories in university print journals feel bland.  They feel like over-rehearsed, over-performed speeches.  They don't feel like I'm sitting with a person telling me a story.  They don't make me feel anything new.  They don't make me think.  To me, if it's any writing, except non-fiction, it needs to be a fresh act of speech (non-fiction has a pass, but just barely).  I think this is why I like the stuff that Mud Luscious puts out and why I like Blake Butler's writing:  they seem to see writing as a chance to utter some different speech acts in a very cluttered world of literature.

This is also why I don't like a lot of print journals.  They don't see literature this way.  They probably have never asked themselves, "why do we publish this thing?"  I doubt their answer would be "to give a venue to bland MFA stories."

I asked this question in the title, why?  Why read, why write, why publish a story?

The reading part should be fun right?  Or engaging on some sort of level?  The writing should be too right?  I started writing a prose thing the other day that might be a story, and it's fun!  I usually never have the compulsion to write a story, but when it happens it is fun or challenging or something.  Why publish a short story? Because as a reader, you enjoyed reading it for its fun or its challenge, and as a publisher you want to share that joy with your readers.  If it wasn't an enjoyable read, why publish it?

So I'm going to keep poking fun at fiction in journals, with the hope that editors will wake up and publish good short stories.  In the meantime, I will be reading The Return and writing my own weird prose thing to celebrate Short Story Month.


  1. Charles E. May ( says: "Readers frequently complain that whereas novels are usually satisfying, complete narrative experiences, short stories are often hard-to-understand, inconclusive, or just plain puzzling." He has written an article called “Why Many Authors Like Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not” that will be published in The Journal of the Short Story in English, which is issued by Presses de l’Universite Angers.

    I've often had the same reaction to short stories as you - don't get me started on Alice Munro! - so I'm looking forward to seeing the article when it's released. Maybe he'll tell me what my problem is.

    Not realizing that it was Short Story Month, I just began a year-long project of reading and blogging about short stories. (It beat the heck out of blogging about the weeds in my garden, or my many failed attempts to diet.) Stop on by some time:


  2. I think Alice Munro might be the least fun writer ever.

  3. I will have to read that article by Charles E. May. What he says of the short story rings true. When I taught 20th c fiction for the first time, many of the studs complained that half the syllabus was short stories instead of novels. They very often found short stories confusing. I consider myself a writer of short stories and a connoisseur of the form, so of course, I was surprised and hurt by this complaint.

    Not all short story writers are conventional--Alice Munros or so-called-stale MFAers (I still haven't found an argument strong enough either for or against the workshop). There is Junot Diaz and Lorrie Moore, as well as more recent writers whose names I cannot remember now. The best short story ever, though, and the one I foist on everyone, is Sherman Alexie's "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" ( I even like how the title has no useless words. Everyone I shared this story with has sincerely thanked me for sharing it.