Archive for September, 2011

The Long and the Short of the Short Story

I wanted to submit a short story to a magazine that has a limitation of 1300 words on the prose it accepts. All of my short stories are nearly 3000 words or more. I assumed a well-developed story requires a minimum of about ten pages, going by the yardstick of about three pages each for complication, climax, and denouement.  I derive my assumption about the minimum length for a good short story from such memorable stories as Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” which is about 3271 words and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” which is about 3779 words.

Flash fiction and short-short stories do not appeal to me.  A story of less than 3000 words is like eating a sandwich with only one slice of lunch meat and no cheese, lettuce, or tomato.  The upper limit of a short-short story is probably 1000 words. Some editors slice the definition of a short-short further by defining flash fiction as less than 750 words and sudden fiction as less than 1000 words or some such variation. The term micro-fiction has been coined for a piece less than 350 words. I found the task of writing a short-short story, however it’s sliced, daunting.  Setting aside my preconceptions about length of a short story, I accepted the challenge to write a story of only 1300 words.

The two stories of this length that I produced may not be memorable, but I succeeded in preserving the fictional elements of character, complication, conflict, and resolution.  Details can be pared away to keep the bare bones. I’ve proven that I can do it, but I still don’t like the minimalist approach.  Hopelessly old-fashioned, I guess I read too many Victorian novels when I was young.  Nevertheless, after trying my hand at short-shorts, I now appreciate the quick gratification of flash fiction, a natural outgrowth of the visual media. Short-shorts are to fiction what haiku is to poetry.

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Strangers to Fiction

At a recent party a reasonably intelligent and educated woman remarked to the group that she does not read novels.  Certainly, she is not the first person I’ve met who can make this claim. My best friend does not read the novels I write. I do not take this personally, because she also makes no bones about never reading novels at all; yet she is a voracious reader of self-help, psychology, and spirituality books.  As a novelist and a lifelong avid reader of fiction, I find it unfathomable that these readers are strangers to fiction. The statement “I don’t read novels,'” always astounds me into silence, unable to argue for the benefits of reading stories about people and events that never actually existed in “real life.”

If I were to open my mouth in defense of the novel, what could I say? I believe there is as much to be gained from reading novels as there is from reading biographies, history , science, and other works of non-fiction.  First, immersion in fiction develops the virtues of empathy and compassion through the creation of fully rounded, multi-dimensional human beings unlike the reader but with whom he identifies. Oversimplifications of complex political, social, and international events are not so easy to make anymore; demonization of those different from us is not a knee-jerk reaction. Second, fiction also enriches our understanding of history, psychology, science, or any other field of knowledge. Great novels are fleshed out with details in all these fields, adding verisimilitude to the plot. Therefore, through reading novels we are also reading every other kind of non-fiction work–self-help, psychology, history, or spirituality book.  We see how other human beings have struggled and dealt with conflict. We see how personality flaws have destroyed them or the sources from which they have drawn strength to overcome adversity. Third, all of this is accomplished through an artful integration of information, characterization, and plot.  Clearly, plot reigns over the other elements of fiction, for the pleasure from reading novels derives in large measure from the story–the ancient art of storytelling, of myth-making, in which a people enshrines its origins, values, and beliefs. To teach, don’t preach; tell a story.

So, how can I really say more about the purpose of literature than Horace, the 1st century BC Roman poet, who said that the purpose of art is “to delight and to instruct”?  In those oft-quoted words, Horace says it all.

I read novels and I write novels for enjoyment and to learn something in the process.

The value of literature went unquestioned in a time when a liberal arts education guaranteed entry into a white-collar position.  Literature included both works of great fiction and works of great discourse, that is, so-called non-fiction. Courses that required heavy reading in philosophy, history, political science, economics, and literature were believed, and rightly so, to equip the individual to develop logical thinking and reasoned argument. To reflect upon what is read, to analyze a writer’s thesis, and to summarize the content of the argument did produce other great thinkers in its train.  Needless to say, higher education in the United States today heavily emphasizes preparation for specific occupational goals.  Earning a degree reading novels may appear frivolous in the current environment. The hell with the prevailing mood! I have enjoyed reading novels all my life and I hope to die in my bed reading a racy novel; my heart starts palpitating too rapidly; the bubble bursts in my brain and I expire.