Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Art of the Short Story

I used to think I liked short stories--reading them requires less commitment than reading a whole novel, and they are focused, without subplots or extraneous characters. They're going wherever they're going, and they don't have that long to get there, so they tend to do it efficiently. These are things I like.

At the point in my life where I thought this, I was reading mainly fantasy and science fiction, and the stories I read were also (in the vernacular) F&SF. I had very little experience of anything (short or long) that might fall into the category of "literary fiction." As you might imagine, both long and short fantasy novels tend to be action packed and plotty.

I have expanded my taste in literature, and I've found that the short story is not standing up to my move out of genre. I find that, in general, the modern "literary" short story can be described thoroughly in very, very few sentences, and that most of the substance of the story is found in minutely observed details of the environment. I don't mean that it can be summarized, but fully explained in brief. And, in the hands of a good writer, the lavish details are serving a purpose--capturing a moment, elucidating a theme--it's just that themed description is not how I think of storytelling.

Take Amy Bloom's collection Come to Me, which I just finished, and enjoyed far more than I thought I would. There's a story called Come to Me, which describes a woman's return home for her mother's funeral, and her memories of her childhood vacations with her family. She knows her mother had a lover, a friend of the family who joined them on vacation with his daughter, and realizes over the course of the story that the relationship was more complicated, and involved both of her parents.

This is, of course, a summary. With another two pages, I could make it into a nice short-short story. But the real meat of the story is what the cabin smelled like, what the children played at, what the leisure of adults looks like to children. It is, in large part, about capturing summer at a lakehouse. The theme is there, and the point, but it's told through incredibly detailed observation of really standard day-to-day occurances.

Now, see, I liked this book. Most of the stories are good, and the real point of what they're telling me are very clear to me, which is a big one for me. And a lot of the stories are interconnected, with common characters and observations of character that build on each other, almost like a storyline. But the qualities I see here do not always work for me--I can't be an Alice Munroe fan, I can't subscribe to literary journals or read the New Yorker. It's just not me.

Interestingly, old stories are something of an exception. Richard Yates writes great short stories, and, grim as she is, I often enjoy Dorothy Parker. I don't know what it is about the literary world of today that gives me pause, but there you have it.

Thumbs up, though, to Amy Bloom's Come to Me.

No comments: