February 20th, 2013
Every year I see a posting for a Broken Pencil short-story contest, click on it with interest and then recoil in horror. I am not Deathmatch Material. I like to think all us short story writers are our own special flowers, and though every reader might not like to sniff every flower, there’s room for all of us in the garden.
Broken Pencil’s Short Story Deathmatch posits a winner-take-all, hateful-comments-weed-out-the-week mentality, at least on the surface. In reality the comments from Canadian readers and writers aren’t *that* harsh–more, the commenters often seem to really engage with the stories. So though I quail from entering myself, I annually find myself drawn into a public-opinion-based literary contest that is actually about the literature.
Because, let’s face it, most public-opinion book contest *aren’t* about the books. At least, not as a “contest” is normally interpreted. Every few months, I’ll get an email or see on FB that an author I know/like/admire is in contention for one of these readers’ choice things, and could I please vote? Usually, I do it if I’ve read the book and liked it–I draw the line at voting for books I’ve haven’t read, no matter how much I like the author’s previous works or personality. But still, even if I know the book well and love it, my vote isn’t really fair, because normally I’ve read few or none of the competitors, so I don’t actually *know* the book I’m voting for is better.
In the interests of fairness, I should really go out and read every book in contention, at least a few chapters and skim to the end, before I make a bold claim that I know which the best one is. But let’s be honest, who is willing to do that without being paid? And who is paid–judges. That’s why I contend that the best people to judge contests are always the judges. It’s not because I’m elitist snob who privileges certain opinions above others; it’s because the only people who are going to read dozens of books in a year that they didn’t select for themselves, some hard to find, obscure, very long, or about topics that don’t interest them–are the folks on the payroll. The “popular” way isn’t even close to fair.
Amazingly, near as I can tell, the Deathmatch *is* fair. Of course, you can’t stop people voting without reading and the writers with friends working office jobs, who can set their phone alarms and go online to revote every hour, are going to do better than folks whose friends are teachers and construction workers. But it works really well. Each quarter final pits only two short stories against each other–it’ll take you maybe half an hour to read both, and then you can make a totally informed decision. You can choose to vote in any number of quarter finals–1, 2, 3, or 4 rounds. The semi-finals pit the winners against each other in 2 more rounds after–get this–everybody’s rewritten their stories to incorporate the feedback they got the first time around. How cool is that?
I voted in a couple quarter finals, but didn’t think to share the love. Now we’re in the semis, but it’s not too late–you can vote until Sunday midnight in the first semifinal, and all next week in the second. Start here and enjoy some weird fiction.
December 10th, 2012
While I’ve been busy not posting on the blog, I’ve done any number of other things, mainly uninteresting and related to the course I finished taking last week (gag! death! disaster! doom!) The one cool thing was two Saturdays ago we hosted a party to celebrate a) having such nice friends and b) the making of How to Keep Your Day Job. We screened the film for said friends, some of whom had been so excited about it for so long it seemed no longer fair to keep it from them.
As far as I could tell, everyone loved the film–it was really satisfying to sit and watch everyone laugh, wince, and nod at the protagonist’s tribulations. At the end, I got many compliments, most of which were waived because I had nothing to do with the film other than the baseline story and a lot of enthusiasm. But it was still great to hear, and I’m sure the filmmakers, home with colds, felt the love even from afar.
One especially interesting compliment came from a partygoer I know less well, who surprised me by announcing that she loves short stories always, even when she’s not at a party hosted by one of their practitioners. I mentioned my pleasure and surprise at this, as it’s not the general attitude towards short fiction. She said perhaps it was because she’s a lawyer–she likes details only if they exist for a reason, and everything extraneous to be thrown out.
I thought this was such a great way of expressing the lure of the story–that leanness, efficiency. Some short-story proponents come dangerously close to anti-novelism with similar discussions, and that’s not my aim. Novels do something our friends in science fiction (hi, Scott!) call “world-building.” Novels create a whole life for their characters–clothes and rooms and jobs and friends (ok, a lot of characters in novels don’t have friends–separate post) and the ticking sound the car makes and love of romantic poetry. You are far more likely to know which way a character votes and whether s/he believes in God in a novel than in a short story. Which is awesome in the way that that’s awesome; and short stories are awesome in a different way.
I was just pleased to hear it described so well, is all I’m trying to say here.
June 17th, 2012
I didn’t read Jennifer Egan’s *A Visit from the Goon Squad* when it first came out, even though I heard it was very good and won a lot of prizes. There’s just too many books that’s true of, and I didn’t know who Jennifer Egan was anyway.
Then I heard a rumour: even though *Goon Squad* had “a novel” on the front cover, that was a marketing move. The rumour had it that it was a short-story collection in disguise. But unlike short-story collections that sales considerations force into the guise of a novel, apparently this one didn’t semi-suck–everyone seemed to love it. I was intrigued.
As soon as I started reading, I realized I did in fact know who Jennifer Egan is–I had read three of the first four stories previously, when they were published in the *New Yorker*. And they were very very good stories, which had impressed me at the time and did even more so in the book. I blame the fact that I never noticed they were all by the same person is that the voices are so various.
The reason for the “even more” love in the book context is because the stories illuminate each other–there’s layers of facts, character and context from one that make the next make sense in different ways than it did standing alone. And as I say, they were pretty darn strong standing alone.
By the time I was four stories into the book, I had realized that *Goon Squad* wasn’t a book of stories, and it wasn’t a novel–it was genuinely and truly both, which is pretty much the equivalent of a plate made of spoons. Nothing the world necessarily needs, or so it thinks, but when you see it done well, it makes your eyes pop open, makes you think about at how you’ve always defined both the plate and the spoon and if both couldn’t do quite a bit more than those limited definitions.
If they’re Jennifer Egan’s plate and spoon, they can.
This book is fucking amazing. It is the best thing I’ve read in years, so good I stopped thinking about how it was working and had to go back and read bits again for the technical lessons I knew were hiding in there. So good I loved and hated the characters and actually teared up for Sasha at one point (I never do that) and always wanted Benny to do better and genuinely love these people.
This book is *bigger* than most novels–its reach is larger, extending from the late 70s to the mid 2020s (and with that future tilt, the tiniest touch of science fiction). But not just temporal reach–there are at least 15 fully fleshed, vivid, active characters–as opposed to the 2 or 3 you get in so many novels, surrounded by a cast of “secondaries” that too-obviously know their place. The real joy of this book is that no one is secondary–everyone is firmly ensconced in their own lives, living as best they can through each day, through each story.
No, no, the real joy of *Goon Squad* is that it is a new kind of book, one with various focii, various voices, enormous ambition and no consideration at all of what shelf at the bookstore it will sit on. It’s stunning, and both inspiring and deeply deeply daunting to those of us trying to write in a similarly fearless way.
June 8th, 2012
I bought *The Book of Other People* (edited by Zadie Smith) in Blackwell’s Books in Oxford, because it is the best bookstore I’ve ever seen and I had to buy *something* but not more than one thing because I was in the midst of a long and thrifty trek around England, and anything I bought I had to haul upon my person.
I bought it partly because it seemed an apt souvenir of England–I’d heard Smith interviewed on the radio once so I know from the accent that she’s English, plus the price on the back was in pounds. But mainly, of course, I bought it because it looked like exactly the book I have been dreaming of all my life. I love character-based fiction–to me who people are is the essence of plot because it’s the essence of life–my brother once made me a t-shirt that says, “Character is destiny,” and I more or less believe it, with a few exceptions for happenstance, acts of gods, etc.
Mainly, I was right–*The Book of Other People* was a great pleasure, starting with a title second only to The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes for good titles I have known. The privilege of meeting a stranger, someone completely unknown and completely unlike me, is why I read fiction. I love other people.
And many of these people were fascinating folks. I truly felt for the pathos of Daniel Clowes’ pretentious film critic “Justin M. Damiano” (the characters’ names are, in most cases, the stories’ titles as well). The next story was in A. L. Kennedy’s much darker style, but her “Frank” still echoed Daniel’s pathos in an achingly sad say. I was charmed and horrified by Hari Kunzru’s “Magda Mandela”–it’s not quite so politically correct as it ought to be, certainly if this were a Canadian book, but somehow that allowed the full bawdy glory of it to be apparent. Vendala Vida, whose work I hadn’t encountered before, brought the full frustration of being 11 rushing back to me in “Soleil.”
In fact, there were actually very few pieces in this collection that I didn’t like. There was Chris Ware’s impenetrable “Jordan Wellington Lint,” but I never understand Chris Ware–I feel like we’ve sort of agreed to disagree over the years. Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” was slight and stereotypical, with exactly one original moment–yet it was a stereotype I recognize and love, so I liked it. Miranda July’s “Roy Spivey” also struck me as pretty silly, though silliness I enjoyed, right up until the deeply heartfelt and mature ending. Who knew? Also, Nich Hornby and Posy Simmonds “J. Johnson” is surprisingly inane and, I think due to badly placed page break, incoherent.
So, yes, I enjoyed the book as I read, but after I finished a number of pieces I felt a bit ill-used. Can you guess why from what the words I’ve used above or, rather, the one I didn’t–story. The book jacket bumf doesn’t bother with that nicety–the back cover says, “A host of extraordinary characters in all-new stories by our best contemporary writers,” but “story” is certainly secondary to “character” there–the form is not made as much of as the content. In the introduction we see why–instructions were unclear. “The instruction was simple: make somebody up.” But Smith does use the word stories in her intro, seemingly as a catch-all for “piece of fiction under 20 pages.” “Magda Mandela” is a sketch not a story, albeit a brilliant one, as is Jonathan Lethem’s “Perkus Tooth.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece is too, without the brilliance.
Sure, those some of those pieces are great to read and might well be the gas that eventually powers a story with a tangible structure, plot, action, other characters, etc. But it seems unfair to compare them to the fully realized, complex and powerful stories like Edwidge Dandicat’s “Lele” (sorry, WordPress isn’t having the two accent aigu that word needs) or George Saunders stunning, devastating “Puppy.” If you are a fan of Saunders (I know some people can’t stand his work), this story stands up to the best he’s written. Zadie Smith herself contributes a story, though she, like many of the writers here, have no reputation in story-writing. Her “Hanwell Snr” is interesting but meandering, with the most interesting points petering out in gestures to another story not on the page. Which, though I haven’t read it, I think actually exists.
This is part of a larger tantrum I’m having over the fact even The New Yorker seems lately to think that readers can’t tell the difference between a self-contained story that provides action, insight, and a degree of resolution on one hand, and a random wad of prose of the same length on the other. If you follow that link you will get the *prologue* to Ian McEwan’s next novel, which TNY ran without any labelling as such, though clearly the excerpt is grossly unsatisfying on its own. IT MAKES ME INSANE–short stories get a bad enough rap for being enigmatic and open-ended without marketing chunks of novels as the same thing. AHHHHHH!
I digress. This is a fun book and pleasant reading, with a few genuine gems of stories (I will return to the Dandicat and the Saunders, I have not doubt). If it had just been marketed as a book of sketches and stories, or if I hadn’t overthought myself into a rage, this would be a glowing review.
*The Book of Other People* is the sixth/June book in my 2012 To Be Read Challenge.
September 29th, 2011
If you’re in Windsor this afternoon, you can listen to me chatting with Bob Steele about the Women of the Short Story tour, the Year of the Short Story, and the nature of truth. If you happen to unfortunately not be in Windsor to listen on Thursday afternoon around 4:40 today, you can stream it live at the CBC Windsor site. On the homepage, scroll down until you find the “audio” section in the right-hand column, click on “97.5 FM CBC Radio One Live” and that’s it–you’re listening.
And yes, I realize this is again a link-not-content posting; it’s coming, it’s coming!
September 27th, 2011
Hi again! My story “How to Keep Your Day Job” is on the Storyville App, which means if you subscribe to the app–for iPads and iPhones and perhaps some other things–you get my story as well as many other wonderful-looking ones, for $4.99 for a 6-month subscription. I think short-story apps are wonderful, and quite possibly the way the form will wind up going. Sort of makes me want to get a cellphone of some kind.
July 25th, 2011
When I was 12ish, my favourite short story was For Esmé Esme, with Love and Squalor by J. D. Salinger. Looking back, I figure that’s the way you think when you haven’t read very many stories, and it’s a very small pool to choose from. After a while, you read more and you realize that there are too many ways for a story to be good, too many different vectors of excellence, and having a single favourite makes no sense. This applies to music, too. And art. Also human beings, and a lot of other things.
I tried to do the math, and I’m guessing a very rough estimate would that I’ve read about 2000 professional short stories (not counting workshop, or student work) in books, journals, and magazines in the last 5 years alone. I’ve loved so many of them, for so many vast and varied reasons. But I reread “Esmé,” for probably the 10th time, but perhaps the first in 10 years, last Friday, and I laughed and almost cried on the bus, and thought it was, along a certain gentle realist vector of excellence, sublime.
Like most people, I was mainly an idiot when I was 12, but it’s nice to know I was in the ballpark on a few things.
June 6th, 2011
Re-reading Big Two-Hearted River (parts I and II) A lot of things I loved when I was 14 don’t stand up so well these days, but the two stories that make up Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” piece are solid gold and always will be. I love the gentleness of the force behind them–unhurried, unprentensious but so involving, so *intense*. And I have to say, I don’t think a lot of 14-year-old girls read much Hemingway, because if they did there’d be way more of us with giant crushes on Nick Adams. *swoon*
Watching the movie Bridesmaids. I am pretty sure I am the ideal target market for this film. I love comedy of all kinds–situational, standup, sketch, improv, whatever you’ve got. I used to be a huge SNL fan (back when I had a tv that worked) and I’ve been on board the Judd Apatow for a few years now. I am also a feminist who gets depressed when there’s a great comic film with all the ladies sitting quietly on the sidelines. And I’m slated to be a maid of honour this summer, and just last week got engaged myself. I saw the movie with the friend I’m mutual maids-of-honour with and a fistful of candy. No one could have been more primed to see this movie. So you have to take it with a grain of salt when I say I laughed. A lot! I didn’t actually know anything about Kristen Wiig, writer and star, before I saw this, but now I think she’s brilliant. The best part is when she wrestled with the giant cookie. The worst part is the protracted diarrhea joke–but even there, I sorta chuckled when I peeked out from behind my hands.
Playing Wii Sports Resort. Did I mention I got a Wii for my birthday? I am officially the luckiest person in the world! I love it all, but especially the sporty games for some reason. I am unexpectedly good at wakeboarding–if I tried to do that in real life I would be killed immediately–and swordplay. Total goofball fun–ie., exactly my thing.
Making spinach dip. There is no way to subdivide a package of frozen spinach, so you can only make this dip for a large party or gathering, so I spend most of life pining for it. Had a party this weekend and got the chance–hooray! For those who asked for the recipe, here you go:
1 package of frozen spinach
2 cups plain yoghurt or sour cream (I prefer yoghurt)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (I skimp a little because I hate mayonnaise, but it actually blends in just fine)
1 can of water chestnuts, chopped
2 scallions or green onions, chopped
Thaw the spinach completely, then take it in your (clean) fists and wring all the water out of it. This is important and I’ve never been able to think of a better way–let me know if you do. Once it’s wrung out, mix all the ingredients together, seal it in a Tupperware and leave in the fridge overnight…or as long as you can stand without going and eating it with a spoon. You can serve it with vegetables or crackers or sturdy chips–whatever it is will just be a dip-delivery system.
Going to the Clark Blaise/Bharati Mukherjee launch Ok, I technically haven’t done that yet because it’s tonight, but then I *will* be doing it, and who knows when I’ll get around to writing another blog post? It should be a great night, two great writers at a lovely pub. You coming?
May 30th, 2011
A few other blog postings about town from yours truly:
It’s a good thing I’ve got these otherwhere blog posts to send you to, as I have nothing much of my own to say right now. Oh, except that if you have overripe bananas, put them in the freezer (peel them first), then chop up the frozen bananas and each them with a spoon–like banana ice-cream!
March 23rd, 2011
In honour of The Year of the Short Story, I’ve been wanting to do a short-story post. I decided to do a “What is?” post because I’ve read a few things lately that challenged, for good or ill, my personal definition of the story. And that reminded me that this definition *is* very personal, so I bet if I make this list, lots of people will be able to add to it, or debate various points, or tell me I’m wrong entirely. And the best way to celebrate the short story, I think, is to engage with the form: debate it, read it, write it, and think about it. So let’s do that:
Short stories have character(s) and events. Let’s get the really controversial stuff out of the way first: in my mind, short stories have one or more characters doing things, or having things done to them, or reacting to events, in a particular time and place. I’m ok with characters that aren’t human: dogs, aliens, faerie princesses, even a well-written tree character might exist somewhere. And the events can be minor–in Jincey Willet’s “Justine Laughs at Death,” the very dramatic story is actually a couple conversations on the phone. Much is *said*, and threatened, but there are few actual events. Still a really powerful story though. I think many writers are stronger at either character (Katherine Mansfield, anyone?) or event (Guy de Maupassant?) and just kind of take a swipe at the other side, which is fine if you can pull it off. But even if the story is mainly the creation and explanation of these wonderful characters, they need to do things sometime. And even if the wild logic of events *seems* to stand on their own, there still have to be people living them out. I really think there has to be a throughline of personality, and an internal logic to events to make a story. I know, craziness–have at me.
Short stories are short in word-count, and use their shortness for concentration of meaning. There is no exact word-count that defines a short story for me–I’ve seen some great ones that were more than 10 000 words, over forty pages. I can’t put a cut-off on the actual length, yet there comes a certain point where the scope changes the tone, and it just doesn’t feel story-ish anymore. Slowly evolving characters with lots of back-story, a build to a fore-shadowed climax of action, and then a reflection period after that–I guess you could do anything in a short story, but those things to me seem inherently novel-ish.
I just finished reading Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (for the first time; am behind) and though it is usually termed a novella, and 117 pages I think that’s proper, I’ve also seen it deemed a short story. I think there might be a 117-page short story out there, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not it. Capote uses the pages for things that, in my definition, novelists do: framing of the story in future and past (Joe Bell’s story about Africa), situating the characters in lives outside the story (the arrival of Doc, which doesn’t influence the action one way or another, just teaches us a bit about Holly), and neat set pieces that sort of flesh out the characters but are mainly just neat set pieces. Don’t get me wrong, as a novella I think it’s brilliant–but the length gives it a very different flavour from a short story.
For a true short story, the length appears not a constraint or a limit, just the amount of words it takes to show what needs to be shown. As I said above, short stories are not constrained by length; they are exactly as long as they need to be to give the reader the joys, sorrows, laughs, or whatever the author wants to give in that space. But they are shaped like stories, whatever their lengths. I’ve read a few stories recently that read like the first chapter of a novel, or maybe the fifth chapter of a novel (I’m in the midst of judging a story contest at the moment, so I have a wide variety of these on-hand). The first-chapter ones, you get a lot of background and insight into the characters and their problems, and they’re sort of mulling over what to do about them; then it’s over. In the fifth-chapter stories, there’s tonnes of action, drama, intensity, but you don’t know anything about the characters or what all these events mean to them, or where anything is headed.
Both these issues used to come up a lot when I was teaching high-school students to write stories (teaching is perhaps too strong a word; try encouraging). When I urged them to give the reader a more complete, consolidated picture of the characters and their dramas, they retorted, “You said it had to be 2/5/10 pages, and that’s all I can fit.” Which is fair if you’re 15, and this is your first story, and you’re only here because your mom forgot to sign the permission slip for the band trip. But despite short stories’ well-earned reputation for inconclusive endings, your ending should still have a bit of that, “I see” sort of feeling, even if you get it three days later. Short story endings, as a rule, don’t shut anything down or solve any problems; they open things up to the next page, the page that isn’t there. Amy explains very well: “it’s always a bit of a shock to end a short story, as a reader or a writer, but then you carry that shock with you for the rest of the day. you feel restless, unquieted, maybe even a little angry. you’re fucking confused! and you don’t want to admit it, but that’s kind of the best feeling in the world.”
Many readers offer short-story writers the compliment of “It ended too soon–I wanted to know what happened next!” To a certain extent, that’s a wonderful compliment–well, speaking only for myself, I love to think I could create a world people would want to continue to live in, and characters they’d like to continue to know. However, there should be something basically satisfying and self-contained about a short story–you should receive enough knowledge, emotion, action, whatever the story requires, that when it ends, some part of you is like, “Yeah. I see…” and what you see is your own version of the next page. It takes work to craft that page for yourself–maybe this is what some people hate about stories–but the writer should have given you the basic tools to do so. It is difficult to explain the difference between the ending-feeling you get with a crafted short story, and the feeling you get when the writer has just run out of space or steam and dropped in “The End” instead of writing the next bit. But trust me, there’s a big difference.
There’s this great Robert Coover story that I just read that elides almost everything that actually happens–the skips are bigger than the hits, and the story itself is tiny, just over 1000 words (what, you never cut’n'paste a story into a word processor to see how long it is?) And yet it packs a huge wallop; the elisions are the story, in a certain sense; but the fact that they are elided for both the reader and the character are the story, too. So you care at the end, about this man whose life you don’t really know, because he doesn’t know, either. Now, in my mind, that’s a good ending.
Short stories don’t do stunts or party tricks. I occasionally find (sometimes in my own work) things stuck in stories that are really cool, either stylistically (unusual narrative voices or perspectives, time fragmentation, kooky narrative structures, etc.) or content-wise (alien invasions, gender-bending, political or media satires) but don’t belong there. Not that I’m saying there could never be stories with the above, even all in the same story, but there’d have to be a bloody good reason for it. What makes a story not a story is when it contains a string of effects that don’t have anything to do with what the story *is*–the writer is just thrilled to be able to do this stuff, and is, essentially, showing off. FYI, this is why my flying baby story never worked out, but I think if I could integrate that baby more fully into the narrative, it still could.
The very wise Kim Jernigan says that stories are “research & development branch of contemporary fiction, where much of the stylistic and narrative experiment occurs” and I heartily agree. However, a successful experiment has to become one with the story, so that you can’t imagine anyone ever writing or reading that story without it. A true innovation is one that renders itself, in the moment of its creation, indispensible.
Like, for example, Matthew J. Trafford wrote this story, “Gutted,” that is about adolescent turmoil, about father-son relationships, about sexuality and “otherness” and violence. It’s a really wrenching story, one that leaves you exactly “gutted” when you finish reading it, and for that it is brilliant. The things I was thinking when I finished reading it were, “I really feel for those people” and “I wonder what they did next.” The thing I was *not* thinking was, “Hey, mermaid story–neat-o!” though in fact there is a mermaid in the story. There’s nothing wrong with “neat-o” but it doesn’t bear rereading, rethinking, mulling over in the shower. Trafford’s story transcends “neat-o” by doing a thousand other things right and writing the mermaid in so finely and subtly I seriously don’t think the story would have been possible in any other guise.
I’d say the same thing about Spencer Gordon’s short story, “Transcript: The Appeal of the Sentence, a story that’s a single, nearly 3000-word sentence about the speaker’s crush on Miley Cyrus. It’s a terrifying story, and terrifyingly good, because the interrogation of language and celebrity obsession, and the modern “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like.” ethos, plus this one guy’s personal and very sweet lunacy doesn’t seem doable in any other way other than the way Gordon did it.
I guess what it boils down to for me is, it works if it works. There are stories I love that break every rule above, but that’s because they aren’t rules–they’re really just observations of what I’ve seen working really well in a lot of stories. I’d love to hear/read other people’s observations, if they should like to share them…