July 4th, 2008

Everything is alarming: more on stories

I was talking recently with a writer who writes mainly highly technical instructional books. She asked what I wrote, and when I told her, it was clear that stories were not something she dealt with often. However, she is well-read and gracious, and after a moment’s thought she offered me what she had enjoyed about the stories she’d read: that, being so brief, short stories can be event-focused and not bogged down in character development. She mentioned a couple of O. Henry stories that focus far more on *what* happens to the characters than *who* they are.

I was stunned, this being so very antithetical to how I write. Characters are what I care about: who they are, how they develop, what changes them and why. I care about event, too, but only for it’s human affect and aftermath. And yet this woman wasn’t wrong. The story form certainly permits a sort of elegantly epigrammic style (“epigram” sounds reductive, but I don’t mean to be–I just mean a story carefully spun around a precise nut of truth. A story that can be summarized easily.) The stories of O. Henry, and Guy de Maupassant are still stunning after a hundred or so years, and I like them a lot. I don’t know if people still write like that very much, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t; there’s still more to tell.

That’s what I think now, having recovered from my bewilderment of the conversation mentioned above. At the time, I think I seemed confused, and I can only hope I was polite. I think I live pretty far into my own work, and though I *try* to read widely, the authors that I come to most are the ones that I’m trying to learn from, the ones who do what I want to do. It’s good to remember that that’s not all there is, or all that’s good.

And yet I was startled also by a compliment that I received from a woman who’d read a story of mine and liked it, even though she “doesn’t like short stories.” I had a knee-jerk reaction opposite to the one above, that the story is infinitely various and that there is a story to suit the tastes of everyone. Just for a flash, I thought that not liking stories would be like not liking shirts–you just need to find your style.

Nonsense, of course. Short stories *are* infinitely various, but they are various within the parameters of prose sentences occupying no more than about 30 pages or so (that’s as bare bones as I can get on this definition–dare you to strip it more). If your “style” is prolonged engagement, or flashes of intensity, or lots of things that aren’t pages of prose sentences, then you won’t like stories–and if what love is being topless, then there will never be a shirt you really love as much. Which is sad for me, but true nontheless (hmm, I can’t unmuddle this paragraph, so I’ll just add the disclaimer that I really like wearing shirts).

I think the point of this post is that I need to be a bit more flexible and openminded. But also, that people are talking about, and thinking about stories, and that people (besides me) *are* flexible and openminded–short stories may not be everybody’s preferred genre, but a surprising number can appreciate them, if they choose to read.

Oh, good, I’m glad that turned out to be the point of this post, since it’s so positive. I’ll leave it there.

I am the rain king

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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