This month, I am reading all of the short stories suggested by Charles May in his book Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. Charles has dedicated his entire career to thinking critically about the short story and I am a huge fan of his work. You can read more about the book here on Amazon.com and more about Charles on his blog Reading the Short Story. The blog is fantastic. Below is the second of my two part interview with Charles.
1. The stories on this list are not all American but reading them through them there are unexpected moments that you wouldn’t get with your run of the mill introduction survey list. You reference Ruth Suckow’s suggestion that the “chaos and unevenness of American life had made the short story a natural expression”. Is this the effect that you were going for?
No, not really, although there is little doubt that there are a large number of important short stories by American writers. This is not just because, as Suckow suggested, that American life is “uneven.” It also has to do with the large number of publishing outlets in America. What I was really trying to do in the list of recommended stories at the end of The Reality of Artifice was provide the names of stories that will probably always remain as part of the primary short story tradition. If I were doing the book today, I would, of course, add many more stories published in the last fifteen years.
2. Who is reading short stories these days?
Well, it might be flippant to answer “subscribers to The New Yorker. But, I think it is true that The New Yorker publishes more stories by more very fine writers than any other publishing outlet in America. We are, it seems to me, well past the time when critics scorned the magazine for publishing only the so-called New Yorker story—whatever they thought that was. Any magazine that consistently publishes a story a week by such writers as Alice Munro and William Trevor is o.k. in my opinion. But then there are also the subscribers of Harper’s, a magazine that bravely continues to publish a story each month (bah! and boo! to Atlantic for dropping their monthly story.) The online magazine Narrative publishes stories regularly, although, in my opinion, the recent Winter 2012 issue was uneven in the quality of the stories selected. And there is, of course, Granta. However, you just will not find many periodicals publishing short stories in the magazine section at Barnes and Noble.
I suspect, however, that since so many other stories are published in small magazines and quarterlies they are available only in the reading rooms of university libraries and read only by a few academics and perhaps a larger number of students in MFA programs, who feel compelled to learn what’s going on in the form because the short story is still used as a teaching medium in workshops. The usual places that readers discover these stories are in the very important yearly Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories—both of which sell rather well. Then there are also the readers of The Pushcart Prize yearly collection and New Stories from the South.
3. Is it possible for a short story to revisit historical movements or they continue to move forward?
I am not sure I understand this question completely. However, I do believe that so-called “historical fiction” is more apt to appear in the novel form than in the short story form. It seems to me that ever since its beginning, the short story has been less apt to focus on historically localized events than on universal experiences. One of the few exceptions is Jim Shepherd, whose stories often devote a great deal of space to establishing the historical context of an event. The problem of historical events for the short story is that historical fiction relies on developing a great deal of “context.” The short story, being, of course, short, does not have the space to “waste” on facts, details, history—unless those historical details are essential for the story to explore its thematic complexity.
4. Which writers do you think have managed to succeed in both novel and short stories?
Some writers, it seems to me, can do both quite well, while other writers can only do one or the other well. A few examples: At one end of the history spectrum, Poe could write great short stories, but did not have the time or talent for the novel, while at this end of the history spectrum, Alice Munro is a master of the short story and seems to have no time or talent for the novel. In the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne could write both complex and engaging novels and short stories. And today there is William Trevor, a great short story writer, who also writes very fine novels. Chekhov had no real talent for the novel form, but wrote masterful short stories. Similarly, Raymond Carver either could not or would not write novels, whereas his influence on the short story form is significant. Bernard Malamud was great at both forms, as was John Cheever. J. D. Salinger was a great short story writer, but, hey! How can we forget Catcher in the Rye? F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were both great short story writers and great novelists, but then in their day, it was as profitable to publish short stories as to publish novels, so they continued to write short stories throughout their careers.
5. In 30 years, how will people be reading short stories? In what format? Who will be reading them?
Well, I am an old troglodyte who is still bound to the book. I sit in my study surrounded by books—all of which could probably be contained on one small Kindle or Ipad. In fact, every bit of paper in my study—books, magazines, files—could be compressed into digital form in an electronic device I could hold in my hand. And then I would be sitting here with nothing around me but this computer screen. Somehow, I find that prospect cold and bleak. I love books. I love the feel of them, the smell of them, the comforting look of them in shelves on all sides of me as I sit at my computer.
As I noted in a recent blog, I just cannot engage in reading text on a screen, although I now cannot imagine writing text any other way. I can read novels and biographies and nonfiction on a screen, but not short stories. In addition to an e-reader, I have an I-pod, and when walking the dog or making long car trips, I can listen to novels or nonfiction books being read to me. But stories–I just have to hold a magazine or a book in my hand and read them word-by-word and page-by-page.
I am not sure that the short attention span of current readers who live in a world of twitter and Facebook will create a new audience for short stories. You would think, wouldn’t you, that short stories would be an ideal form for our modern age? But not so, it seems to me, for the short story will not tolerate a quick read on the fly, but must be read carefully and with appreciation for the solidity of the words as they create a human and aesthetic experience. You cannot read good short stories in a hurry; you cannot skim them or scan them, it seems to me.
So, in thirty years, who will be reading short stories? Well, not me, for sure, but hopefully those folks who read my blog today, and the thousands of others—a lot of whom are writers—who appreciate and value the subtlety and complexity of great fiction—they will always be reading short stories.
6. Do you write short stories?
When I was teaching, I often had students say to me, “Dr. May, since you know so much about short stories, why don’t you write short stories?” The short answer is: I am not very good at it. As most literary academics, I began my reading career wanting to be a writer. When I graduated from high school, I won a scholarship to attend an honest-to-God writer’s workshop at Morehead State University in Kentucky where there were honest-to-God writers and even literary agents reading their stuff and talking about—gasp–publishing that stuff. I had been writing stories all through high school and submitted one of my stories—a trivial little O. Henry type piece entitled “The Last Laugh.” And lo and behold, at the end of the two-week workshop, I was named “most promising writer.” There is even a picture of me in the Morehead State Yearbook in 1961 receiving a prize from the poet/professor Al Stewart. I later got some small scholarships and workshops and attended Morehead State U, becoming the Feature Editor of the school newspaper, editor of the literary magazine, and so forth—publishing more sophomoric stories in the newspaper and the magazine.
Well, to make a short story even shorter, I graduated from Morehead in three years with a major in English, major in history, and minor in philosophy. I got a National Defense Act Fellowship in 1963 to pursue a Ph.D. in English at Ohio University. And pursue it I did, getting an M.A. in 1964 and a Ph.D in 1966. I kept on writing fiction stuff, but it got filed away in folders; I spent most of my time on academic scholarship and criticism working toward the degree. In 1967, after teaching for a year at Ohio, I got the job at California State University and thus, six years out of high school, was an Assistant Professor in Long Beach California.
Did I continue to try to write fiction? Sure I did, but then I had to concentrate on working on what would get me tenure and promotion to Associate Professor and Full Professor—which I did. I soon realized that my early interest in the short story was something I could pursue with some success—not writing short stories, but writing about short stories–which I did—for some forty years. When I retired six years ago, I decided to take some time away from writing about short stories to go back to writing them—which I did—and published two stories. Here are the urls for them if you want to see how a guy who has the nerve to think he knows something about short stories writes a couple of short stories. I have several other stories in various draft stages, but find that I do not have the passion for writing stories as I do for studying stories.
7. The book was written ten years ago. Has your taste changed? Would you add any stories to this book now? Would you take any out?
Actually, the first edition of The Reality of Artifice was published in 1995; the paperback edition came out in 2002. If I were to do a new edition of the book, I would add a helluva lot of stories—not because my view of the existing list has changed—I would not take anything out—but because I have read so very much stories since then—many of which I like very much. If you go to my blog and look at the list of “Subjects discussed” and click on “100 favorite short story collections of the 21st century” you will see quite a few of them. To date, I have posted over 150 essays on the blog, in which I have talked about many other stories that I would include on a new list of “recommended stories.”
8. What would surprise you in a short story right now?
I have read many short stories over the years, but every time I read a good new one, I am delightedly surprised. When short stories stopping surprising me, I will probably stop reading them. However, I am often surprised by what happens in the world of the short story—especially what reviewers say about short story collections, what stories get chosen for “Best” collections, and what stories win awards.
9. Do you think short stories have more in common with novels or poetry?
Oh, poetry! No question about that. To explain why would require a book.
10. Can you talk a little about the book you are in the process of writing?
How kind of you to ask. And indeed, in reference to the previous question, this new book will include a discussion of how the short story is more closely related to poetry than it is to the novel.
I posted an entry a couple of months ago on the third anniversary of my blog announcing that I was beginning work on a book on the short story that would be a sort of “how to read the short story” but which would probably not use that somewhat pretentious title. However, it has always been my opinion that the novel is usually more “readable” than the short story; that is, the novel seems more apt to fulfill a reader’s expectation that fiction should be a mimetic reflection of external reality, that fiction should be what, Stendhal called the “mirror in the roadway.” Usually in a novel (and of course there are many exceptions), the reader is content to move temporally though a number of recognizable experiences involving a group of relatively familiar characters from one point in time to a subsequent point in time.
Most novels can thus be read without any significant previous experience with other novels. Although an experienced reader can help an inexperienced reader understand the context and importance of a novel, one does not have to be taught how to “interpret” a novel. Again, of course, there are exceptions. I spent a full year not long ago learning how to read Joyce’s Ulysses and teaching a group of twenty students I took to Dublin for a couple of weeks how to read that somewhat daunting un-novelistic novel. However, during those two weeks, my students and I read the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, which, although seemingly much simpler on the surface than Ulysses, required no less training in how to read those innovative works of short fiction.
It has always been my opinion that the short story is an unfairly underrated genre, always languishing in the shadow of the ostensibly more important novel, since big is always better. There are lots of reasons why the short story is shortchanged in the realm of fiction, many of which I will discuss in this new book, but one of the main reasons folks underrate the short story is that they try to read it as if it were a chapter in a novel, since they know novels better than short stories, and then do not understand it. What I would like to do in this new book, which the majority of my blog readers think I should call Reading the Short Story, is to help redeem the short story from its undervalued status both with the popular and the academic audience. I don’t want it to be a textbook introduction to the short story or a “Short Story for Dummies.” I want it to communicate my conviction that the short story is a powerful and important form of fiction that one needs to learn how to read. Based on over forty years of reading, teaching, and writing about the short story, I want to offer some suggestions about reading the short story. Although I will provide some historical background to the form and talk a bit about the stories on my “recommended” list, I will focus primarily on the contemporary short story—stories that folks are reading now.
I intend to write posts on my blog periodically about my progress on the book, which I hope to be able to complete by the end of 2012.