Tuesday, January 09, 2007

traditional vs non-traditional

I have been mulling a lot over the distinction between "traditional" short stories and non-traditional ones, and trying to make some sense of the whole thing. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night so this might not come out very clearly, but I will have a go anyway. Why don't I like the sort of short stories the NewYorker publishes? Because, with a few exceptions (George Saunders, Hariku Murakami) I don't consider them short stories but a whole other form: the short novel.

The short novel has all the elements you're familiar with from a novel: an opening paragraph or five which don't tell you much about what the story is going to be, lengthy descriptions of place, lots of "telling" not "showing", a meandering narrative with digressions all over the place, and an ending which is neither surprising nor satisfying. This is what I am calling a "traditional" story... but perhaps that is wrong, and I look forward to being argued with vehemently.

This is not, in my mind, what a short story is all about. A short story is its own form, it is not simply less words than a novel. It embraces the beauty of brevity, each word is a precious commodity, it conjures up a whole world in the blink of an eye, and it ends with an ending which doesn't not have you turning the page and wondering where the rest is. You know a good short story has ended, and while you may be sad not to be in that world anymore, you know that this ending was somehow inevitable. Perhaps this is the true traditional short story, but it has become the more "experimental" one.

So, that said, I have been wondering whether I should try and write a "traditional" story just to get it into the sorts of mainstream publications that probably wouldn't (and haven't to date) read past most of my first lines. But then I think to myself: If I wrote a story I didn't like much and it got published and noticed by those I want to notice (i.e. agents, editors), and then I show them the rest of my opus, bang goes that idea.

Anyway, just wanted to open a debate about all this. I read a story in another very well-known American mag yesterday (mentioning no names), and while the writer injected some magic and surrealism in there, I was skimming through paragraphs of lengthy description trying to get to the action. And the ending was SO predictable that I rued the time spent reading it. Why why why?

PS I have also noticed the demise of the hyphen. Words that should be hyphenated are left dangling, making no sense. Am I the only one who has spotted this? Is this a grammar revolt? How can I get hold of Lynn Truss?


Vanessa Gebbie said...

I agree with you, Tania. I was given TNY last year, several back copies, and I retired with glee to read the 'best fiction on offer in the western world, in the short story form', which after all, is what they are meant to be, if the NY is the most difficult place to be accepted, anywhere, isnt it?

I couldn't believe what I read. Turgid, self-aware prose, lengthy descriptive passages, perfectly 'OK' writing, but no zip. Nothing to make me think 'wow, yes, THIS is what I aspire to.'

I think the issue may be two-fold. There are so many University programmes now, all teaching CW... and all teaching to a formula... if you flick to the CVs of many writers who produce this style of stuff in the University sites/mags in the States, they've mostly all got an MFA from here or there.

secondly, how many writers a ctually get to the NY via open submissions? I doubt there are more than 0.5%. Its all submitted by agents, I reckon... who 'sell' a work on the basis of the name, not the story, occasionally.


And more depressing, is the fact that we will probably be criticised for pointing it up.. and called 'jealous'!

but good for you for starting the debate.


Tania Hershman said...

Turgid, that's exactly the word! Well, I think we should keep on discussing this, even if we get called "jealous". I used to think that perhaps it was because I was jealous.. but now - and I have had a subscription to the NY for many years - I don't even turn to the Fiction page because I can't bear the disappointment. That's surely not the way it should be. And if people reading it think that is what a short story is, no wondering publishers want novels, eh?!

On the same note, I went to hear an American writer read here in Jerusalem last week. He was just visiting, and we don't get them types around here much. He's published many novels and short story collections, and edits a major lit review. Seems like a nice guy. But.... the minute he started reading his short story, I knew that this was one of those. The story would have been ripped apart in any good writing class. He started it in the wrong place, he chose the wrong main character, and he summed it up with at least a page of moralising.... I was so angry afterwards, I was ranting to the friends I was there with all the way back to the car. And he's successful!

I'm not depressed about this, just bemused and pissed off. Is it that people who like to read these stories are novel-readers who just want more of the same? Or don't they realise that there is something else out there?


Unknown said...

Hmmm, very interesting thoughts, and I should probably go away and ponder and then leave a reasoned response, but instead I shall head spew cos I've got to pick the kids up soon and then I'll forget!

I understand what you mean, I know the heart sinking that comes when you eagerly begin a story only to immediately know that it's not for you. But isn't that it? It's not for you, but it may be for someone else. I adore short stories but many's the time I've read a collection and only been able to say that I liked one story of the whole bunch. The same is true of novels though. As a bookseller I am hugely aware of the gaps in my reading, there are some books I know I ought to read, but where's the pleasure in ought to? We read what thrills us, entertains, moves etc.

I like writing without rules, I like sometimes being told not shown, meandering paragraphs and experimental typography, but not always. There's room for both traditional and "alternative" or whatever, if it's good writing and story telling then that's all that concerns me. If however I couldn't care less and have no curiosity as to what happens next than the story has failed, but it's all so hugely subjective.

I am familiar with the very sameyness of many MA writers. I am solely self taught having never had the funds to do any University course, and sometimes I wish that I could do a creative writing thang, and lap up skills and hints and so on, but I do also fear the sausage factory nature of them too. I did once do a 10 week course that was hopeless, and in it we were asked to define in one sentence what a short story is. I struggled so much that I cheated and got a very brilliant and concise friend to write my sentence for me, and I still think what he said is the perfect answer to such a stupid question;
"A short story is a concentrated piece of prose fiction whose meaning is enhanced by space rather than the volume of its words."

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Been thinking about this question. TNY etyc, and Sara sort of came at what she said from the same place...

I wonder whether because we write, and know what makes a good short story from a writer's perspective, that spoils us? How many writers read TNY? As a percentage of their readership, I mean. It would be interesting to know whether those who make up the majority readership judge the stories as 'really good' because most of the time, these people prefer novels, and the magazine is feeding them an already tried and tested diet?

I havent seen a snappy story there, or indeed, in any of the wrothy publications I see. Granta. Paris Review. In fact, the first Paris Review of my subscription contained a short story that was a perfectly decent writer's very first publication.

Perfectly decent. I mean those words. Nothing special. Competent in the extreme... but I doubt whether her name will be among the greats in fifty years time.


Tania Hershman said...

Sara, Vanessa, thank you so much for responding to my post and turning this into a discussion. Sara, I totally take your point about it being a subjective matter, what we like. Yes, just like art, we like what we like and someone else doesn't. But, and you mention this, there is some kind of yardstick of "good writing", there has to be. And I guess what I am complaining about is less whether a writer spends ages describing something or telling not showing than whether it is good writing. Often, in these big mags, it's not. Good writing covers a myriad of things: using the right tone, the right rhythm, the right voice for the story. Mainly - good writing is writing that pulls you in and doesn't let you put the magazine down until the story is finished. That doesn't happen to me so often anymore.

As you say, Vanessa, oftentimes the writer is competent, which is fine, good for them, perhaps they will develop a little zip. But if these magazines are publishing "competent" rather than brilliant, then what is the message they are sending?

I fully admit to being very cynical and judgemental and - since I have been working on flash fiction - very dubious about what someone takes 5000 words to say which can't be said, or shown, in under 1000. I'd like to be less cynical, but reading is one of the only true pleasures in life that you can do on yor own, so I refuse to lower my standards. I want to be blown away, breathless, by the end of the story. I won't settle for anything less.

Mark said...

I found your post while looking for other short stories that don't have traditional structures, by which I mean characters, plot, timeline, moral, etc.

I am not sure that this is the kind of non-traditional you are thinking about.

A couple of stories I would recommend for non-traditional structure:

"Those Who Walk Away From Omelas" by LeGuin.

(no main character, no plot really)

The Babysitter by Robert Coover.

(Not a singular plot line/reality) (Be warned that this story can be a little brutal, and while Coover has don't other stories with similar rejection of plot, I have found this one to be the best)

I do consider both of these writings stories rather than sketches. I am still looking for more.

Mark said...

Alain Robbe-Grillet and Boris Vian are two French writers who also disrupt the traditional structure of a short story.

Mark said...

Last one, I promise. Franz Kafka is another writer in this category.