Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Short Stories - Do They Matter?

Years ago, I read a newspaper article by a TV critis. The critic shocked me by saying, essentially, that TV didn't matter. The jist of the argument was that TV shows, even the greatest ones, were ephemeral. Was there an episode of any TV series you might care to mention where you could faithfully recount the plot? Let alone was it a story that touched you deeply. Let alone whether there was a single episode that you could honestly say changed your life. A TV episode was simply too short, too formulaic, too...well, ephemeral to make a serious impact on a viewer. Movies and plays were a different matter. The same way with novels?

Now, I seriously question whether the critic was on to anything. Certainly there were plots I could remember faithfully,(plots are often the only thing I can remember faithfully) there were episodes that touched me, and there were probably some that changed my life. Perhaps not in drastic ways (nothing has yet made me consider joining the French Foreign Legion, for instance) but subtly. And this was all before TV series had a second life on cable (does that date me?) and a third life on DVD. In fact, this was before DVD at all.

Also, this doesn't take into account the cummulative effect of a series -- one episode may not havea profound effect, but no TV writing staff would want to be known for just one episode. There'd be no point in calling it a series if you're going to judge it based on a single episode.

Now to short stories. Are they ephemeral? Do they disappear overnight, forgotten when the next short story is read, or can they have a lasting impact? Did you read Araby in high school? Or Young Goodman Brown? Or maybe Hills Like White Elephants. Memorable, no? Here are two short stories that have never failed to leave me less than devastated: Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing and Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff. Hey, that last one is even a crime story...They both have an effect on me that I can't even begin to describe let alone explain and I have a Ph.D. in describing and explaining literature. Seriously. These are stories that cannot be called ephemeral, I think. You can probably devise your own list of stories that have a similar effect.

Okay, okay, so those would all be considered literary story, and I'm a crime writer so... we're getting to crime stories. Stories about crime are very often stories about core human emotions and behaviors - revenge, jealousy, love, hate, justice, the list goes on. The subject matter, therefore cannot preclude them from being of lasting value. And the prose stylings of some writers is at least as fine as many a literary writer, so that also does not set the stories apart. (I'm thinking of Steve Hockensmith's story Erie's Last Day or Thomas Lynch's Blood Sport among many others.) So what is the difference?

I think the difference is the attention that is paid. The field of short story writing is huge. Even the subset of mystery/crime stories is unwieldly. I have a brief list of links on the right hand of this blog that will take you to places where you can get fresh fiction in this genre. Don't go yet, I'm not finished. New e-zines keep popping up. Even a new paying print market has promised to show itself soon. It is difficult, therefore to stay abreast of the field, and harder still to seperate the wheat from the chaff. Because I think if you read nothing but short stories and found one (of any genre) each month that truly moved you, that would be great, no? And if a writer in his or her entire career came up with a half dozen stories that you thought were top notch, that would be one hell of a career, no?

That's why I think paying attention to short fiction is so important. If you don't pay attention, you won't find anything at all and you'll think the short story field is a wasteland of forgettable prose without a single oasis to slake your thirst and as a reader you'll die without having noticed the spot or two of water you could have otherwise found. The spot or two that could otherwise have saved you.

And so I review the stories I like here on my blog for the seven of you that stop by on occasion. This is my way of pointing out some of the good stuff and raving about the great stuff and paying attention overall. Because otherwise, the stories are, of course, ephemeral if we let them be.

Now, I must point out how lonely a job I have. I'm the slowest reader I know. Others, like Hockensmith and Simon Wood have tried to take that title, but I have a firm grasp on it. I think one of the biggest services done to the mystery short story genre in recent years was the advent of Bob Tinsley's blog where he reviewed fresh fiction daily. When you're done here, go check it out. It hasn't been added to in a long while, but it's a great archive. He even disliked one of my stories enough to write about it. Cool.

I'll be paying even more attention to the form and to the writers in months to come. Keep coming back for mini-interviews, reviews, and a roundtable. That's right. A ROUND-TABLE.


Blogger Graham said...

I personally prefer short stories to novels. As I commented on another post, I just finished reading the new anthology DAMN NEAR DEAD, and there were some terrific stories in there. Stories that moved me, made me laugh, etc.

And I can remember LOTS of short stories that I've read. "Red Wind", of course. William Campbell Gault's "Dead End For Delia". "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber". Even obscure titles like "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow" by Ron Goulart.

I don't think that length or heft implies significance, although that seems to be the consensus. I'm more impressed by those who do more with less.

August 01, 2006 9:06 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

I agree. The length of the story doesn't indicate anything about the quality of the writing or about the meaning you'll be able to wrangle out of it. After all, some of the most powerful pieces of writing are just snippets of poems.

August 01, 2006 11:37 PM  
Blogger Steve Hockensmith said...

There's a slew of mystery stories that have stuck with me...even if the titles often *don't* stick. The damn things are so, you know, short. I'm not gonna forget the title of a novel I spent three weeks reading, but a story that took me half an hour three years ago...man, I'd be surprised if I *did* remember the name. But here are a few examples anyway.

That weird James Powell story about the clown detective. That Kevin Wignall story where the assassin guy gets himself killed in the end. That one by Nathan Walpow about the wrestler who may or may not be murdered in the ring. That thing I saw in that one antho by that guy about that insane carnie.

Helpful, eh?

I still say *I'm* the slowest reader in the universe, by the way. Maybe we should have a read-off in Madison. We'll both start a short story at the same time, and the one who finishes first...loses.

And I, too, miss Bob Tinsley's short story reviews. He was like the scrubbing bubbles: He worked hard so I didn't have to. Lord knows, being the (soon to be crowned) Slowest Reader in the Universe and all, I can't stay abreast of what's going on in the short story field without a little help. Great to hear you're stepping in to take up the slack!

And, hey -- Bob liked "UFO," didn't he?


P.S.: Oh, yeah -- thanks for the name check on "Erie's Last Day"!

August 01, 2006 11:39 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

You're part of the roundtable. Just thought you'd like a heads-up.

As for Tinsley - he may well have liked the UFO story, but he stopped reviewing a few months before it came out. Oh well.

Clown detectives? Carnies? Imploding assassins? Are you sure you're not just making stuff up?

August 02, 2006 12:01 AM  
Blogger Steve Hockensmith said...

I'm a member of the round table? Cool! Does that mean I can start making everyone refer to me as "Sir Stephen"?

Bob didn't review "UFO"? Weird -- I could've sworn I saw a glowing reference to it on *somebody's* blog. Hmmmm. Maybe it was yours...?

And I can prove I'm not just making those stories up: I actually remembered a title! The James Powell story is called "A Dirge for Clowntown" (I think). That ginko biloba I've been taking must be finally paying off!


August 02, 2006 1:45 AM  
Blogger Kevin R. Tipple said...

I'm more of a novel guy. However, I do like the short stories and like some novels, there are those that remain in my brain. I'm not necessarily impressed by those who supposedly do more with less becuase with zines and numerous online sites, it is somewhat easier for those to get published than novelists.

August 03, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

I think Graham is probably impressed by those who do a GOOD job. I agree that it is easier to get short stories published, but there are a few high quality sites out there that I'm guessing say no to a lot of stuff. I don't think SHOTS or SHRED or the brand new DEMOLITION of rhtat matter, just take what comes. There are a few other sites equally selective. Of course, you get the occasional clunker.

Now, since there are only two PAYING markets for stories (I haven't seen MURDALAND yet), it's probably much more difficult to get paid for a short story than it is to get paid for a novel. Not sure that means anything, but I stand by it.

August 04, 2006 6:55 PM  

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