Thursday, May 1, 2014

Consistency. And the rise of short forms

A foolish consistency, though it may be the hob goblin of little minds, is also the way to go for a writing career. This seems particularly true when it comes to the short story. Perhaps it’s a choice based on economics: you’ll only grab a reader for those few pages, and if you can pull it off then, you might be wise to do it again and again. Some of the greatest writers of short stories are all about this economy of scale: Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Updike, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Charles Baxter. I might even include Lydia Davis in this incomplete list, though I’d add that her longer short stories never quite seem satisfying enough as short stories. But she’s got her short pieces down to a science, consistently. With these writers, you might see some formal playing around, but generally, not much deviation from the guidelines that have succeeded before. You can essentially take any one of their stories and it will offer a kind of template in tone, style, length, subject matter, among whatever other qualities that could be checked off, to their entire oeuvres. That these are the most beloved and lauded of writers says something about consistency. What it also might say about the marginalization of short stories, and their estimable writers who have made their names generally under the purview of short stories, is something else entirely.

The short story might be the most conservative of forms, in this regard. David Foster Wallace was anything but consistent when it came to the short story. He bridled at consistency, perhaps out of a need to challenge himself, to avoid boredom, or just because he could. But he seems to have cared less for the incremental rewards of the equivalent of little caffeine hits, and, as so many are led to believe in the publishing industry these days are, too, that short stories don’t sell, aren’t read, etcetera. Insert any number of maligning/marginalizing epithets here. I would guess that for a lot of short story writers, or writers in general, the onus is more on finding a habit that fits, though for a writer of DFW’s caliber, consistency in formal qualities was nothing to strive for. Consistency can be a lowest common denominator, but over a career I would suspect it would feel stifling and eventually as rewarding as sending out your dry cleaning.


The rewards of reading a short story might be like the incremental hits one gets from any addiction, caffeine, a check of the inbox, etc. In this way, the argument seems to be made for the popularity of shorter forms. They certainly become more facile to write, if only for the time required to produce them. And I’d venture in a very curious suggestion, that this is where populist poetry and the short story are converging, which is bound to make poetry less of a ghetto, eventually more mainstream (and you can imagine how the capital P poets feel about their territory being impugned upon!) Whenever poetry is popularized, you can hear the traditionalists crying foul. 

The form is ready made for the web.

This arrival of short forms has arisen with the internet and the self publishing venues. Before, this niche might have been under the canopy of poetry. In fact, some of these short prose pieces are difficult to define, and might just as easily be thought new forms of poetry. (As I’ve written a kind of poetry for years—I can’t even allow myself to call it straight up poetry, though others have—I’ve taken to submitting these short prose pieces both as prose and as poetry. Who is to say what they can or cannot be called?) The purists or experts might claim there’s too much writing to wade through, and the playing field has been leveled to a ground zero nuclear fallout zone. But who knows? I’m sure it was easier to be a writer, and be recognized for it, fifty or sixty years ago. Maybe this is about adaptation to technology.

I’ve gone through something of an evolution in my own work. I never used to write these short pieces, other than to be convinced I was writing poetry, and I’m not sure when I thought of it as a good idea. In some way it’s easier when you have time constraints, but it’s also more difficult to pull off successfully, because you have to accomplish that kind of frisson moment, perhaps even to call it a catharsis, within the space of a paragraph. In the same way you might question whether your 3500 word short story is working, you have to accomplish something--more often than not--enigmatic, in 2 or 300 words. 

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