Saturday, March 17, 2012

Short Shrift

The first question asked when someone discovers that you are a writer is "How many novels have you written?"  Inherent in that question is the disregard and dismissal that anything less than novel length, by virtue of being short, does not really matter.

I am not a jealous writer. No sir.  I put in my time willingly and gladly. I have spent twenty years or more crafting short stories and ( mostly unsold) novels, scratching out millions of words in order to sell less than half.  I have created a few hundred characters, alien and human, and tried to give them emotional depth, unique characteristics, and appropriate settings in compressed tales of some complexity. The completion of each story has been hard won and emotionally draining, an exercise not unlike sprinting against thousands of opponents, all straining to reach the finish line of editorial acceptance. Writing salable short stories has been challenging, difficult, and at times, frustrating.

But short story writers get nary a nod of fan recognition at conventions while some author who managed to write a book - a single God-damned book! - has people lined up for autographs.  You can see many of these wordy bastards being taken to dinner by editors and publishers, feted at parties, praised by fans, giving readings to packed rooms, and sitting at tables at which a long line of people forms, each clutching a copy of the book to be autographed.  Novelists are the brightly shining stars in any convention's firmament.

Don't get me wrong.  I have no objection to those readers whose tastes force them to wallow in the trough of excessive narrative compositions, who wish to explore the biographies of each of a dozen characters, or who adore the author's limning descriptions in page after page of painstaking detail.  I have no arguments with those who prefer the long slog of a journey through hundreds of pages rather than the excitement of a brisk meaningful stroll through a dozen. But I fear that in the pursuit of the sheer volume of verboseness such readers are missing the pleasures of nuance, of craft, and of compact exposition.

Neither do I object to those blathering writers who consume entire chapters in expressing the same thing a short fiction writer can accomplish with one well-written paragraph.  The only answer I can imagine is that those who exclusively prefer novels must be so addicted to immersing themselves in the long forms that they've failed to appreciate the economies of expression that drive the short story to its razor-sharp conclusion.

Perhaps those who demean short stories are challenged by the variety and surfeit of ideas put forth in shorter forms, where every story is not only different but often expressed in a new way.  The reality is that the genre's shorter works are the cutting edge of styles, ideas, and approaches. Short fiction is not insignificant.  It is the crucible where concepts are forged long before they are exploited in the longer and more complex forms of novels.

So why does it get such short shrift?  Why isn't short fiction appreciated more?

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