Sunday, December 19, 2010

Return to Fiction: Novels vs Short Stories

A Christmas present to myself: I will give myself the gift of fulfilling an early dream. I am going to get serious about publishing my short stories, those already written, and new ones I'm writing now.

I've had a book published and a few poems, but why did I stop there? Too busy doing marketing work for clients, and fooling around with electronic music, I suppose. Of course, both those activities shall remain in force, full steam ahead.

Happily though, after reading a lot of James Thurber's The Thurber Carnival, Mark Twain's Essays and Sketches and Who Is Mark Twain?, and Norman Mailer's The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, I found a new and intense motivation to publish all the short stories rotting in cardboard boxes or squirreled away in my brain.

I have been a writer, and fan, of micro stories, extremely brief fiction, known as "sudden fiction", for most of my life. James Joyce's Araby is one of my favorites. I have several volumes of hardbound books containing famous short stories. I'm going to start reading them again.

Part of this renewed interest in short essays and short tales is due to my blogging work. I've noticed that my reading of James Thurber, in particular, has improved my blog writing for clients, and this synergy has me excited.

I find it curious that I often love an author's essays, but shun his or her famous works. Mark Twain, for example. I may have read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court when I was a kid, but there's no way I'd read them now. Too long. Too much authentic dialect that's virtually unreadable. Some authors are more interesting to me when they're discussing writing in general, than when they're actually writing novels.

It's brief, succinct, quickly-told tales that catch my eye, capture my fancy, and hold my interest. It's not that I have a short attention span, for I can read an entire book by Jacques Derrida or Theodor Adorno with no problem, though I may not comprehend their deeper ideas completely.

A tale must begin with a bang! A shock! A headless man who is more attractive than ever to women! Something bizarre or challenging, a slamming of consciousness that turns your world upside down or casts you down forthright to the floor in utter astonishment.

I believe you can judge a story from it's first few sentences or paragraphs. If the beginning startles or intrigues you, right off the bat, then it's probably going to hold your attention and satisfy you.

I especially like short stories that end up going places you would never guess from the opening statements, works that deviate from expectations, like Mark Twain's "Conversations with Satan" which seems very disrespectful to the Arch Fiend, by virtue of it quickly digressing into a passionate discussion of cigars and how nobody can really tell a good (expensive) one from a bad (cheap) one, except by the box or wrapper it's in.

I've never understood why it would take 400 pages to tell a story. Not that much, of earth-skaking significance, happens to most people in real life to warrant a 400 page reporting of it. Try writing a summary of your life. I'll bet you can do it in under 50 pages.

So why should a novel, even a narrative detailing someone's life history, or the story of several generations of a family, take so many pages?

As I've stated, most of what happens to a person is filler, boring, of no narrative merit, completely void of entertainment or educational value.

Of course, some writers, probably because they are not good in plot construction or dialogue, fill their novels with tedious descriptions of environments, locations, clothing, and other matters of little consequence, even from a symbolic viewpoint.

I know what I like and I know that I don't like novels, especially novels with convoluted plots involving a cast of more than 5 or 6 major characters. A story should be something you can get through without a spending a lot of time and going through a lot of trouble, in my opinion.

"Now who is this person, is that the hero's father, or his university professor, or a step-uncle?" I find myself asking, then flipping back to find where that character is first mentioned. You do that enough times, and you start to get really weary. You begin to wonder why the author can't just cut through all these perfunctory personalities and mundane details -- and jump ahead to the main action or the point the author's trying to make.

Perhaps authors are insecure. Maybe they fill their novels with characters and prolix descriptions to make the novels seem more substantial, or serious, or intricate. To me, it's just a bewildering maze that taxes my patience and burdens my memory powers with unnecessary clutter.

Big fat novels! They're too intrusive, they become an all-consuming escape from reality.

I don't want to escape reality, just to enter something more complicated and tiresome than my own life experience. I'll take a short break from reality, by way of a short story or a little poem, but I'm not interested in devoting a huge amount of attention and memory to a bloated narrative full of characters that you must memorize.

Long novel narratives waste large portions of your valuable time and energy as you ponder people that don't exist and events that never happened.

Whereas, as short story doesn't overwhelm your imagination or replace your own reality, at least not for very long. You dip into it, you swim around a bit within it, then you're out again, often with a moral or a lesson or a better sense of how life works. No big commitment, no long list of characters and their complex relationships with each other.

As a general rule, I will not purchase a thick, long novel. I limit myself to collections of short stories and if I buy a novel, it has to be short, with few descriptive details, actions that are quickly communicated, and lots of dialogue and psycho-philosophical remarks.

I note that the artist and writer Tom McCarthy has a new novel, with the short title C,  in the bookstores. I almost bought it yesterday. I will probably purchase it later, but I'd much rather have a collection of his essays on avant garde art, if such a book exists, which I sadly doubt.

Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a fairly short novel that I greatly enjoyed, even though is said to have no plot, and seems to be a collection of impressionistic essays and dream-like sketches of a person attempting to find coherence in a fragmented world. The Amazon reviews are quite to the point.

Alain Robbe-Grillet's Djinn is a really short novel and is surrealistically phenomenal, though a recent Artforum article on Robbe-Grillet didn't even mention it. I think it's one of the best novels (or novellas)  ever written.

There are exception to my Short Novel rule.

The Bible, for example. I have always wished it was ten times longer, and had books in it that were written by women. "The Gospel of Martha" or "Psalms of Deborah" or "Prophecies of the Female Prophets" would be great.

As a side tangent, I am one who rejects the Danvers Statement, evangelical patriarchy, and male domination, since these concepts are clearly non-biblical distortions of carefully selected proof-texts. Male supremacists often condone or ignore wife battering, exploitation of females, incest, and psychological abuse of women.

Example: a woman told her pastor that her husband was violently abusing her. The pastor then told the husband that his wife was gossiping about him. Such a perversion of male roles and church leadership is more common than one would like to think.

Marcel Proust's multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past, Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged stand out as exceptionally well-written long novels that are worth slugging through.

But enough of aesthetic theorizing and the vanity of self-revelation!

It's time to get back to my fiction writing. I am venturing forth, once again, into the Literary Realm.

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