05 October 2007

Ailing Short Stories, part two

In reference to Lesley's last post about ailing short stories:

If you missed the comment thread on King's article, it's worth taking a gander. Sad to see how little respect a grand master like Stephen King garners. Whether you like his books or not, he is a solid, craft-minded writer, and millions of sales don't lie. Someone even said Stephen King doesn't write short stories. Heh. His credits listed him as having written 400 short stories, and like any writer worth their salt, he cut his teeth on short stories before most of us could hold a crayon.

His point about short stories, how they often feel dull and mass-produced, is well worth considering. I see them all the time, short stories that have had the spark beaten out of them, or maybe it was never there in the first place. And I don't mean just in our slush pile, but published, as well. They lack passion. They lack life.

The best short stories are long on craft, short on verbage, and they get beneath the reader's skin like a sliver. The themes might be big but the stories and the characters peopling them are often small--and that is the point. They don't show us the entire ocean, but just a few grasses near an undersea cliff. Short stories only hint at the blackness beyond, and let's face it, that blackness can make us damned uncomfortable.

Remember that old personality test from Psych 101? Do you eat around the edges of your jelly-filled donut, savoring the anticipation, or do you bite right in? In this day and age of Supersize Me and McMansions, I think the answer for most of us is clear. We don't like to be uncomfortable. But for this editor and reader, the best short stories don't have jelly. They let me fill in the middle with my own experiences and worldview--newly sugared by the author's ideas.

Short stories are meant to pulsate, to push limits, and to make us think, albeit in not so many words. It is up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Like Barth Anderson said in our interview: "...every sentence is like another incremental dilation of a camera lens, letting in a little more light, information, or field of vision of what we're looking at. To me that explained what short stories can do." But the physical limitations of word count means an entire world cannot be revealed. It's one lens, not CNN. Something has to be left out. Something must be left to the reader's discretion, and that's the beauty of the thing.

I do think the genre is ailing, and I do blame editors for buying so much milquetoaste. After all, we provide the bridge between our readers and our authors. One time I got the comment from an editor that I hadn't developed the world enough in a particular story. "You only spent 2000 words and you could have spent 4000." Hmm. I'd specifically aimed this story at online markets, in which shorter often does well. But, in all fairness to the editor who had taken the time to comment, I had a friend read the story and then I asked her questions about the world I'd developed. Guess what? She got all the answers right, even the ones that weren't specifically addressed in the story.

Many of the published shorts I read have all the I's dotted and T's crossed, and not just by the copyeditor. One of the commenters in the article's thread said they can't identify with the characters in most short stories. Maybe that's because the authors don't leave the reader any space to do so. They comb the protag's hair and make sure their buttons are lined up right. Such stories leave no room for the reader, and hence the characters, to breathe. I challenge editors --and writers!--to trust their readers. That bridge I was talking about...it ought to be more of a swinging rope than a Golden Gate.

The saddest bit is that short stories uniquely fit our sound-bite society. They ought to be doing well. But then, a sound-bite isn't meant to make you think, it's just meant to make you buy.


David E. Hughes said...

Some very interesting points, Bets. Even in the sci-fi and fantasy short story markets, I see editors buying stories that are smart and well-crafted, but, at their heart, not very good. This happens for a variety of reasons, but I think the number one reason is something King mentioned, a small pool of authors writing for an even smaller market pool. Editors need to remember that the more "specialized" their stories get, the more their market pool shrinks.

Bernita said...

Makes me feel better about writing lean and mean.