Monday, October 15, 2007

Writing without Passion

It seems that people have tired of writing about the death of the novel. Now they're picking on the poor, defenseless short story.

Stephen King has written the latest obituary in the September 30 New York Times Book Review. "The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were true," he writes.

He first vividly makes the case that lit magazines have been relegated to the dusty corners of chain book stores, but that's no surprise. The chain book stores really don't want to sell lit mags, and very few consumers want to buy them, but, well, it's a book store, and one must keep up appearances.

Then King makes the piquant point that the only readers who read these damnable lit mags are writers who want to be published in them.

"What's not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there."

That's not real reading, he says, and he's right. And I suppose you could say that these writers who aren't doing real reading, aren't doing real writing, because both are being done in a calculated, passionless way, and he's probably right again.

But this doesn't convince me the short story is dead. It convinces me that literary magazines are dead, or many should be dead. It convinces me that consumers would rather read memoirs and other nonfiction than short stories--if they want to read at all. But then consumers haven't really wanted to read short stories since the 1920's, before talkies and TV.

It's not that King doesn't have a point. Yes, I'm sure the cliche that MFA degrees have ironed the raw truth out of fiction is in part true. Yes, I'm sure that many writers write to succeed rather than write to live--but then hasn't that always been the case? And does this abject careerism mean that the short story is dead?

If the short story is dead now, when was it alive? That's the annoying thing about articles like this. They start with the premise the short story was once alive and well, but they don't tell you when this golden era was. And they insinuate that the death of the art form is because of the two things King harps on: people are stupid now (whine, whine, no one will buy true art) and/or writers (except for the author of the essay and his close friends) just don't have the right stuff any more (whine, whine, they don't make 'em like they used to).

Alice Munro. Denis Johnson. James Salter. Robert Stone. These are just several authors who have written great collections of stories in the last ten to twenty years, and there are many more. Why shouldn't they rank with Chekhov or Hemingway or Carver? I'll take Jesus's Son and five points any day.