Saturday, 13 August 2011

In Defence of Short Stories #13: Tony Rabig

Cover for 'Ghost Writer'

We don't believe in superstition here; this is the thirteenth 'In Defence of Short Stories', and proud with it.

Today's guest post come from Tony Rabig - a short story writer who you'd do well to check out. For evidence, see his blog, Notes From The Wrong Side of Sixty, his Amazon author page for a list of his books, and Smashwords where you get a free short story Ghost Writer  the description of which I'm sure will be intriguing for any writer (I won't say any more, to force you to go and check it out...)

Tony has helpfully provided links for nearly all the authors and stories he mentions (and he mentions a lot, and good ones); all are to Amazon US.

Take it away, Tony...

Cover for 'The Other Iron River, and Other Stories'
You pay your nickel and you take your chances.

And these days, when few people want to take any chances at all with their nickels, it can seem like the short story needs defending. After all, you can get novels for 99 cents -- forty thousand, fifty thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand words or more -- so why shell out that same 99 cents for something that may run well under three thousand words? At first glance that may look like a good question.

Except for the assumption behind it, which is that when buying works of fiction you can measure value received by weight alone.

Reading a story, regardless of length, lets you experience something vicariously. You give yourself over to the author willingly, to have your emotions and thoughts manipulated. The intensity of the experience doesn't depend on the length of the story.

Nobody who's read it forgets Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." There's not a lot that chills the blood the way Stanley Ellin's "The Question" does. If you want your heart broken, stories like Theodore Sturgeon's "The Graveyard Reader" and "Bright Segment" or Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" will do the job nicely. Depending on your sense of humor, stories like John Collier's "Over Insurance" and "Bottle Party" can leave you laughing harder than you did the first time you saw the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup or read Joseph Heller's Catch-22. None of these stories would benefit from being expanded to novel length. The fact that a story is short doesn't necessarily rob it of scope -- in John D. MacDonald's "End of the Tiger" you get a glimpse of the lives of a family, hard lessons passed from one generation to the next, and the realization of the wisdom behind those lessons, and all of it done in under two thousand words as the narrator recalls an evening in his youth when a visitor played a cruel trick on a pet goose; like many short stories, it's a quick sketch rather than an intricately painted canvas, but the intensity of experience is there.

I grew up on science fiction, horror, and to a lesser extent mystery and suspense stories (genres that lived for quite a while as much in magazines, in the short forms, as in novels), so that's where I drew my examples. But the same observation applies to general literary fiction. Earlier posters for this series have already cited Carver, Chekhov and others. Irwin Shaw, Somerset Maugham, Hemingway, John O'Hara, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many more were as adept at the short forms as the long. The reader who turns away from the short story because of the notion that he's not getting good weight for his nickel is cheating himself.

But that's the attitude of an advocate of the short story. The attitude of someone who never regarded the short story as a bad buy just because it was short.

What's in it for the reader who's used to measuring it all by the pound?

Well, when he lays down his nickel there's a chance he'll be treated to an experience that will stay with him the way a satisfying novel would, and because the story is short, it won't take him nearly as long to read it; he may find himself getting as much or more for his money as he'd get buying a novel. He might also find he's bought a stinker -- it happens. You pay your nickel and you take your chances, but that's as true of the novel as it is of the short story. And there are things possible in the short form that I'd think would be difficult to do as effectively and economically in the novel -- see some of the work of Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, or stories like Ursula LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."

Still, there are plenty of readers who will continue to measure by the pound, and no argument is likely to change their minds before the coming of a new vogue for short fiction. Until that time, short stories will remain a hard sell, resisted by some readers and not bringing the writer anywhere near the money that a novel priced at 99 cents might bring.

So why would a writer continue writing short stories? What's in it for the writer?

If nothing else, there's this, from Irwin Shaw's introduction to his collection God Was Here But He Left Early:

"Today you are sad and you tell a sad story. Tomorrow you are happy and your tale is a joyful one. You remember a woman whom you loved wholeheartedly and you celebrate her memory. You suffer from the wound of a woman who treated you badly and you denigrate womankind. A saint has touched you and you are a priest. God has neglected you and you preach atheism.

"In a novel or a play you must be a whole man. In a col­lection of stories you can be all the men or fragments of men, worthy and unworthy, who in different seasons abound within you. It is a luxury not to be scorned."

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