I must confess that the contents of this journal show the bold title to be inappropriate. It would be a pleasure to fight with John Carroll; his blunt dogmatism makes him an inviting opponent. But the truth is, I almost always agree with his opinions and that makes it hard to argue with him. My only excuse for the title is that it was totally irresistible.
ALMOST everyone agrees that the short story is a very difficult art form. Why then do so many beginning writers try to write them?
That’s the question posed by Hayes B. Jacobs, editor of New Voices of 64, in that book’s preface. He says that next to poetry the short story is the most difficult form of writing. He says he often wonders why beginning writers start with such a difficult form. “Why start with Mt. Everest?” he asks. He then attempts to answer his own question by saying that beginning writers cannot concentrate on one subject long enough for a longer work while a short story can be ground out in a few hours. Also he mentions that creative writing classes emphasize the short story because of time limitations of both students and teachers.
This all sounds so sensible that I almost believed it, but then it occurred to me to wonder what he would say about the beginning poet. Since poetry is, according to him, even more difficult than short stories, would he wonder why a beginner tries to write poetry? Where does one start if he wants to learn to write poetry? His argument sounds suspiciously like looking under the street light for your lost wallet because the visibility is better there than where you dropped it.
Beginning writers try to write short stories because the short story is the oldest, most natural form of communicating our experiences to others. Short story writing was old before the novel existed. When a friend says, “Let me tell you what happened to me,” he is going to tell you a short story, and when children learn to talk they say, “Tell me a story.” In non-literate societies, the story teller is often an important man.
Anyway, what would Jacobs have beginning writers start with? Novels? What modern writer did not start with short stories, I’d like to know. I don’t think one has much choice. If one wants to learn to write fiction, he has to learn the business of writing short stories, however bad the result may be.
In the light of what seems to be our instinctive interest in stories, it is baffling that the short story market is rapidly drying up. I suspect that the order of difficulty as expressed by Jacobs for writing is also the order of difficulty in selling, both for the writer and the publisher.
There is no question that short stories are in low demand. Even a well-known writer’s book of short stories is unlikely to sell well. I would like to know why.
There was a period of several years about twenty years ago when short stories, especially those published in books, became incomprehensible, but I’m sure that the diminishing popularity had already been established. And at that time the New Yorker was publishing what I thought were great short stories. (Cheever, Nabakov, Salinger, for example.) I believe the trend toward incomprehensibility is over. For the last two or three years I have been reading quite a few collections of short stories and generally I can now tell what the stories are about, though John Gardner (author of that marvelous book, Grendel 1) said in an interview with the Washington Post that the opening paragraph of most short stories takes you immediately into the mind of a person whom if you met at a cocktail party you’d quickly say, “Excuse me, I must go get a drink….” He also said an awful lot of writing ability is being wasted on descriptions of trips to the bathroom.
This rambling discussion of short stories is a result of thinking about the opinions expressed by John Carroll on NAPA short stories in Phlugg 43 and in a letter to me on much the same subject. It is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion of NAPA writers, and the ones discussed are simply chosen to illustrate points. I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you are not herein mentioned, it does not mean I don’t think you one of NAPA’s good writers.2
John Carroll has, by letter, taken slight issue with my contention that fine stories must be about people and not about things by equating stories about people with gossip. But gaining some understanding about people, and through this, getting a glimmer of ourselves, has nothing to do with gossip. John may claim that people do not interest him, but I maintain that John Carroll does interest him, and that a good part of his knowledge of John Carroll has come from the fiction he has read.
In the same letter he also half-heartedly disputed my contention by giving an example of a book that lacks plot but is certainly not fine literature, but I know that John does not seriously maintain that when I say that stories that emphasize things and plots are usually trash that I’m thereby maintaining the negative of the statement. After all: If all Johns were Carrolls, it would not follow that all Not-Johns were Not-Carrolls. Believing otherwise, you commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent.
Most of the opinions vouchsafed by John Carroll, irascible though he may be, are quite sound, and on the whole, I agree with him about 66.67 per cent of the time. This includes his criticisms of poems and short stories of amateur writers. I don’t quite buy the rules for short stories as discussed in Phlugg 43. Especially I don’t buy the comparison to the rules of baseball. For this reason: I can find a major short story that violates any one of his rules, but no major league baseball game can violate any baseball rule. In other words the rules for short stories are more comparable to the rules of etiquette than to rules of a game.
The truth is that it has been found that if stories conform to certain patterns they are more likely to be successful. But the only real rule is that a short story must be interesting to be a good short story. That’s all. As John quoted in his letter to me about my distinction between trash and literature, “’tain’t what you do, it’s how you do it.” Offhand I’d say that Saroyan has had published many short stories that follow none of these rules. His description of how to write a short story in the preface of The Best American Short Stories of 1974, includes nothing resembling the usual rules. And in “Isn’t Today the Day?” he writes: “Plot? Who needs plot? Form, continuity, style? Who needs them?” Of course, John may claim, as I believe, that Saroyan is a genius and not therefore to be bound by any rules.
In spite of what John says, it is not easy to define a short story. Everyone does not have as clear a definition in mind as John Carroll.3 Martha Foley, Editor, The Best American Short Stories of 1974, gives some of the many definitions in the preface of that book. A sonnet is well defined4 and inflexible, but a short story is not so fixed. I think there is little to be gained by trying to make a distinction, for instance, between an anecdote and a short story. In fact, Henry James said that a short story could be an anecdote. Usually, it seems to me the writer is saying, “Let me tell you what happened,” and he doesn’t really care if you call the result a short story or something else. Actually, the writer may never have thought, “I’m now trying to write a short story.”
I particularly think of the stories of Edwin Randle of his experiences in two world wars, that have been appearing in his Belleair Bugle. Most of them have few elements that John says a short story must have, yet they are, I think quite successful. They give, I believe, an authentic and interesting view of a time and circumstance in our history not generally available to us in his context. By that, I mean there are plenty of contemporary accounts of those times, but Randle is viewing them from the present and is therefore able to place an emphasis on events that is more meaningful to us than had the stories been written near the time when they happened.
Tony Moitoret in his tales in his Ding Dong of his days as cub reporter is doing much the same thing – providing us with a knowledge of our past but from a modern point of view, and perhaps in his case a wider point of view than a military man is likely to have.
As Randle continues writing, he (the narrator of his stories) is becoming a bit more human, but his tales would be more interesting if he carried this process a bit further. Many memoirs, especially of amateur writers, never show the narrator committing a blunder, an injustice, or an act of which he was, at the time or later, ashamed. I’m afraid we all do these things, and a memoir requires some of them to make its author believable. Or to say it another way, we can share each other’s blemishes with more grace than each other’s virtues.
You may say that Randle is not writing short stories but reminiscences, but I don’t think the distinction makes a particle of difference to the reader. Rowena Moitoret may care whether her superb story, “The Glass Fly,” is called fiction or not, and Bob Williams may insist that his “Mrs. Williams and the Ice Man” is not fiction, but the reader doesn’t really care. He wants the story to be “true” and “honest,” but he doesn’t care if it’s fact or fiction.
Carroll in his Phlugg article makes the common assumption that amateurs should strive to become professionals, but I see AJ as offering a quite different possibility. The marketability of a story depends on many things in addition to its quality. James Jones, in his preface to Ice-Cream Headache, says he could sell none of the stories in that book until his novel, From Here to Eternity, had made him famous. Then the same magazines that had rejected them accepted them.
Obviously his already written stories did not improve by publication of his novel. We really should not confuse quality with marketability. Jones also points out that certain themes and certain situations in a short story can make it unsalable. Some E. M. Forster stories with homosexual themes could only recently be published.
Suitability for the intended publication is paramount. Playboy does not carry stories that extol the virtues of old men or Cosmopolitan stories that leave an impression that sex is more than a fun thing. Writers of the skill of a Vonnegut have chafed under the necessity of writing for a market that restricts their themes to commercial channels.
The big advantage of AJ is freedom from the requirement of marketability. The challenge of AJ is to try to exploit this advantage. We have the opportunity to write what we please about the subjects that please us in the manner that we please.
I realize it is very convenient to have restrictions imposed on us so that we can use them as excuses to explain why we are not doing any better.
In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a poet at a cocktail party is loudly lamenting that he cannot write the poetry he wishes to write because he must write for the market. Elliot Rosewater asks him how much money he needs to make him independent of the market for a year and gives the poet a check for the amount he says he requires. For the rest of the evening the poet follows Elliot around asking what kind of poetry and about what subjects would Elliot like him to write.
Perhaps the greatest failure of NAPA short story writers is the failure to take advantage of our freedom from the market place. Ideally, amateur writing should not be inferior writing but different from professional writing.
The most unconventional writer in our organization is, without doubt, Kelly Janes. I think his story, “Lasting Love,” (NA, Vol. 95, No. 3) is the most original short story by a NAPA member that I have read. Part of my interest in Kelly’s writing is due to his low predictability. By that I mean that if you read half a sentence any of the rest of us wrote, you could pretty well finish the sentence yourself. But if it’s a Kelly Janes sentence, the second clause is likely to be a complete and delightful surprise.
In my opinion this story illustrates the potential of writing without market pressure. I’m assuming it would be a difficult story to sell because it is so off beat. On the other hand, for all I know, the first magazine editor who saw it might like it as much as I did.
One fact that our amateur fiction writers must cope with is the necessity to be very brief. I’m not sure whether this is a handicap or a blessing, but it is certainly a factor in the fiction we write. Most commercially published short stories are at least 7000 words long and 10000- to 15000- word lengths are more usual. Even the longer stories in our AJ journals seem to run 3000 to 5000 words. I supposed those of us with vanity presses could write and publish longer stories, but I don’t see much hope of anyone getting a 10000-word story published through our Manuscript Bureau, mainly because there are 50 to 60 hours of type setting required if one sets the type by hand.
It is the brevity of the short story that makes it such a difficult art form. If you have to restrict the length drastically as we are forced to do for our journals, the difficulty is obviously increased, and it may be that very few writers could produce marketable stories under that restriction. This brevity leads our stories to be short on either action or characterization; there is little room for balance. Either we have a plot in which something happens or we have a character sketch. This brevity tends to produce anecdotes (which John Carroll complains about) rather than the usual short story. We can recognize this even if we are not overly concerned about the tags placed on them.
Some people can make the very-short story into a miniature novel. I’m thinking particularly of Ann Vrooman’s “A Scattering of Sparks” (Boxwooder, No. 69). She makes such skillful use of her space that it is hard to believe that her story is only 3500 words in length.
The writer who uses near-perfect short story technique is Dwight Cross. If anything, I believe his stories may suffer from being overstructured though his “First Day at Gettysburg” (NA, Vol. 95, No. 1) is certainly a successful story by any standards. Perhaps unfairly, I have accused Dwight of putting too little of himself into his stories. I keep having the feeling that if he would let himself go, and perhaps slightly disrupt his technique in the boilover, he might be a very good writer. In his odd, but extremely well-done, sketches of the last hours of condemned men, I feel that Dwight comes closer to revealing a somewhat unorthodox turn of mind that might serve him well in more personal stories.
Whether one agrees or not with John Carroll, his astringent criticisms should help us write better short stories, sketches, and anecdotes. Unfortunately, most people, and probably especially amateur writers, react negatively to any but the most gentle criticism. That’s probably why our Bureau of Critics is reduced generally to a stroking function. While it is undoubtedly gratifying to have your readers praising your every effort, the reader who really helps you learn to write is the one who points out weaknesses in your stories.
Are you interested in kudos or in learning to write? Probably both, but don’t neglect the latter. It’ll help keep your hat size down, too. – JLW (Dec. 1975)
Just as the above was in the galleys the Washington Star interviewed John Gardner, the author quoted on page 3, who said that the novel is a respectable form but that basically short stories are not. In fact he goes further and uses John Carroll’s very words. “Short stories,” he says, “are basically gossip.” He goes on to describe the kind of personal, realistic short story that I advocate as being merely high class “True Confessions.”
1If you haven’t read Grendel; run, don’t walk to the nearest library or bookstore. It’s the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view. Available in paperback, too.
2The converse of this statement, unless I’ve lost count of my negatives, is however not true. That is, if you are mentioned, I do consider you to be one of the good ones.
3In fact, John is lots surer of lots of things than lots of people.
4Well, there is a secondary, old definition: “any short poem.”
Hand set in Deepdene. Cover is in Twentieth Century and Spartan. Initials are Caslon. Text stock is 50-lb offset; cover is Gilbert Ledger. Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a 10 by 15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.