Saturday, March 12, 2011

Read It or Don't Write It - Short Fiction

I LOVE short fiction. I love that I can buy collections cheaply on the Kindle, which has re-ignited interest in the short form in the general public. But I can instantly tell when I'm reading the short fiction of a writer who doesn't read it.

If you don't read current short fiction, you don't write good short fiction. I guaran-fucking-tee it. So don't write short fiction if you don't read it. You'll either write a mini-novel, which will be unsatisfying as every aspect will be truncated, or you will write for a BIGREVEALOMGOMG. The entire purpose of the big reveal story is the final paragraph. So if I guess the big reveal beforehand, and I will, there's no point in reading the story. And even if I don't guess it, why shouldn't I just read the final paragraph? I'm not saying I never write one, but I shouldn't, and I don't do it much anymore. Getting the context out of the way, letting the reader accept it, and then telling the real story that that crazy context sets up is one of the correct ways to write a concept story. In the amazing "The Hortlak," Kelly Link lays out the zombie sitch in the first page. In the equally amazing "The Cavemen in the Hedges," Stacey Richter's first line is "There are cavemen in the hedges again." She doesn't spend the story giving us increasing hints about what might be in the hedges. First line. Cavemen. Now she can get on with the story. I don't mind a mid-story reveal, either.

I'm getting off track.

Like poetry, short fiction is a conversation with other artists. You need to read good short fiction to be able to write passable short fiction. So yeah, read the classics, read Joyce and Carver and O'Connor and Chekov. Duh. But read contemporary stuff. Or just write novels. You read novels and understand how they work.

So here are my favorite contemporary short fiction writers. The first two are tops, the rest in no particular order.

Dan Chaon - Among the Missing will make you question yourself as a writer. It's that good. Dan Chaon's words weave a dream-like magic that distracts you as he rips your heart out of your chest. And he's a crazy cool guy. His latest novel, which I haven't gotten to yet, is a thriller called Await Your Reply.

Thomas Ligotti - The most important short horror writer alive. Probably the best short horror writer ever. Yes, Poe and Lovecraft are both more important. But Ligotti is better, though he might not be blazing the trails they did. And he's still alive. I don't ever feel that I can predict who history will remember, but it should remember Ligotti.

Stacey Richter - Twin Studies is so good it hurts.

Lorrie Moore - Okay, everyone likes her, and they should. Yes, she unleashed the second-person imperative story on us in the 80s, but she did it first and did it right. And she gets you laughing as she breaks your heart.

Alicia Erian - The Brutal Language of Love is aptly titled. She straddles the same line Chuck Palahniuk does between shock and story, and I think she does so brilliantly, bringing more of the real world into it.

Chris Offutt - Okay, again, everyone likes him. I'm giving you some writers who are a bit unknown and some who are well-known. If you're interested in writing fiction that's authentic in its regional flavor, you need to read him.

Jim Shephard - Check out Love and Hydrogen for a bunch of his best work. Great speculative and realistic stuff. He writes literary stories, but isn't afraid to have things happen (Goddamn do I hate New Yorker realism).

Donald Pollock - Another great regional guy and an up-and-comer for sure. Check out his book Knockemstiff set in Knockemstiff, OH (Yes, that was a real town where he was raised that has recently been ghosted). Smart stories in which crazy shit happens. Did I mention how much I hate New Yorker realism?


  1. Thanks for the author recommendations! I'm requesting a couple of them from my local library.

    I agree about the BIGREVEALOMGOMG (love that term). It's wearying, and almost always boring.


  2. That's exactly it: boring. My rant could probably have been boiled down to that.

    Do anything you want with your fiction, but don't bore me.

  3. Interesting rant. I'm not a huge fan of traditional short fiction, say less than 10K words. But I do think it's great that the ebook format has started to make the format a little more viable. I'm convinced that different readers will like different things, and they will have more options going forward.

    However, I actually am a big fan of mini-novels, to the rare extent that they exist. They will exist more in the future, I believe.

    And I gotta say - I love the big reveal. When it's done right. Probably half of the dozen or so shorts under 10K that I have written involve the big reveal. I write what I like to read.

    Of course, it has to be done right. The big reveal can't be the only thing interesting about the story. But it can certainly be the most interesting thing about the story.

    I read and write primarily thrillers, and the big reveal is one of the great cliches that if done well can really work. I sometimes think people's likes and dislikes relating to this kind of thing have at least as much to do with preferred genre as anything else. I don't care for the magic that tends to populate the most popular YA fantasy or the romantic machinations in romance. I find them. . .boring. But I suspect readers who like those genres do not.

  4. Interesting comments, Edward.

    When I said mini-novel here, I was being derogatory towards a 5000 word story with all the components of a novel, which is doomed to fail because none of those components can be fleshed out. I love short novels/novellas, which can have all the components of a novel with much less than 100k. So don't get that point tangled and twisted.

    Horror is OBSESSED with the big reveal, which is how I've grown to dislike it so much.

  5. I think some short story writers (including some of the lauded who will remain nameless in this comment) are more concerned with pretty sentences than story. I love short stories that, well, tell a story and something happens -- that something can be in the mind, in a situation, in a character, in one pivotal moment (even if it's near the end -- I'm okay with that), or in a subtle moment you might miss if you don't read the story carefully enough.

    I also believe eReaders will resurrect the American short story form -- where else but a Kindle or Nook (etc.) can you buy only one short story? The possibilities are endless and oh-so exciting (I worship at the altar of Joe Konrath as well :) ).

    I'm going to suggest two other names to add to your list (warning: both have written for The New Yorker): Alice Munro (one of my faves is "A Wilderness Station") and Annie Proulx, specifically "Brokeback Mountain," which is one of my favorite shorts. Another favorite short from my childhood -- "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury (this is the story that made me want to write stories).

  6. "I love short stories that, well, tell a story and something happens -- that something can be in the mind, in a situation, in a character, in one pivotal moment (even if it's near the end -- I'm okay with that), or in a subtle moment you might miss if you don't read the story carefully enough."
    This is what I tell people when they say their short stories keep growing. The end of a short story doesn't have to tie things up like a novel. It often should end with something happening internally, just like you've said. Epiphanic, antiepiphanic. A slow moment of expanded consciousness.

    Munro is great, and I like some Proulx (I know that I'm in the minority there. People are crazy for Proulx). I actually don't have anything against people who've published in the New Yorker. I mean, they published George Saunders. But I do think there's a type of realism about upper middle class people that is totally mindnumbing in which almost nothing happens externally or internally, and I call it NYR.