Short Fiction

I am reading a short story in a magazine I admire. The story, like this post, is in the journalistic present, as if everything is happening all at once. I, too, have written in the journalistic present, and I’ve come to distrust it.

I don’t like the journalistic present tense because we experience our lives as a narrative, with beginnings, middles and ends. Narrative is a contrast that blissful childhood state when we assume that things will go on more or less as they are: our parents will be with us, our house will remain and the only thing we’ll have to learn is how to please ourselves and others, without making a mess.

Sooner or later we discover that we really can’t understand anything unless it is in the past–a thing that happened, a beginning that ended, an event whose importance may change as we grow older, but remain back there, in that house, with our parents, in that mess.

We acquire what happens to us through our five senses, which means that there is likely a great big pile of stuff that we miss because we don’t see it, it doesn’t fit into our ears, it wasn’t the kind of thing we’d put into our mouths, it had no recognizable odor and wasn’t anywhere near our skin. This stuff that we miss is a great source of the short fiction that I read in college, where, certain that my literary efforts would eventually preoccupy a professorial lecture, I wrote stories about young people who visit friends, wander into a familiar wilderness or go to what they believed was home, and notice more of what they previously ignored, or had been incapable of noticing.  It wasn’t that my characters couldn’t go home again–I retained obsessions with my parents’ divorce, my high school girlfriend (who is now my wife) and the science fiction and fantasy writers I felt were as important a literary force as the naturalists and realists I met in college. My characters went home, sometimes relentlessly. Every time they did, they were forced to admit that what was home was a narrative that had ended.

I sent those short stories to the magazines I admired. The stories came back, rejected. I read the short stories those magazines published and tried to figure out why those stories were published and mine weren’t. When I began to write for newspapers and magazines, I saw that those who were published had won an important award, written a best seller or attained a national reputation, and, therefore, helped sell the magazine. Was that the only reason?

I return to the short story. It’s set in a strange, slightly menacing wilderness area that reminds me, not of strange, slightly menacing wilderness, but of a person who is not comfortable where he lives, and is projecting that discomfort on to the setting. This could be the author’s intention, or an insight to the author that, like a flash of skin at the edges of a mask, is a part of an illusion I’m not supposed to see.

The short story ruled the American literary scene in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Popular authors, most of whom did not find immortality in college literary classes, were paid as much as $40,000 (yes, Forty Grand, as the great short story writer Damon Runyon would say), for a few typewritten pages. This sum could be doubled or even tripled if the story was turned into a play or movie.

Whether these writers thought what they were writing was junk, or art, did not matter to them as much as their need to make a living until they made their living and discovered that those people they based their stories on–the blithely affluent Gerald Murphys who inspired Fitzgerald, or Hemingway’s lasting infatuation Slim Keith–did not appreciate their fictional portraits. So great, however, was the art of these and other writers of that era, that it is largely through the fiction that these people are remembered today.

Far more magazines existed in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Few survived into the second half, when I was born and began reading science fiction and fantasy published by authors who were dismissed by my English teachers as hacks. The major difference between the hacks of yesteryear and those of my youth was their prodigality. Instead of few typed pages, they had to grind out 75,000 word paperback novels. Some of these authors (I met a few) had literary pretensions, but their efforts were treated as disposable by just about everyone but their fans. A very few hacks experienced the thrill of “breaking out” of their genre and selling science fiction to mainstream magazines that paid as much for their story as they got for a novel. How you did this wasn’t easy.  I heard of one science fiction writer whose friends staged seemingly accidental, but ultimately successful run-ins with the short story editor of one prestigious publication.

But, at writers conferences, where I shared a dais, or a panel discussion (I was moderately well known as a regional journalist and mystery author), with some of these editors, they all said, “you just have to write a great story.

And yet, when you look back to Dickens and other literary giants who were popular in their lifetimes, you can find the same stuff that animates the comic book adventures of today. The entertainments that make the most money today spring from comic books, video games, toys, theme park rides, literary fantasy (“Game of Thrones”), and space opera (“Star Wars”).

None of which you’ll ever see as short fiction in the magazines I still admire. I want to feel grateful that in the same metaphorical movie multiplex where supervillains and superheroes throw things at each other, is a smaller, quieter theater where kids who go home again discover the end of one narrative and the beginning of another.

Or something like that. Not only do these films exist, but there are so many on the streaming channels that you may not live long enough to see them all. If you tire of the films, you can read books, some of which are reviewed in the magazines I admire. A major difference in the rites-of-passage, coming-of-age stories I read in college, and those being published now, is that the settings are in cultures as exotic as anything we can imagine on an alien world. Characters are mixtures of this and that, not so much flawed as uncertain of who they are. Their search for understanding yields new narratives that temporarily confirm notions of identity, but the endings remain disquieting and unfulfilling.

I grew up believing that art was necessary, that great art would change us for the better, that delight in the sense of wonder might unite us and save us from our vain pursuits, and that persistent, sincere effort of the highest quality possible would bring success, if not a livelihood, and that awards, national reputations or best-selling products would happen in time. I did fewer wrong things than right ones. I find myself in a world with too much art in it, and stories whose presence in magazines remains inexplicable.

After the first few paragraphs I want to give up on the story. The characters don’t interest me. The description of the setting does not provide that “ludic” moment when I leave my world and enter the author’s fictional domain. The plot doesn’t move forward as much as it wallows around, with a flashback that is supposed to show me how things have changed.

But I persist because this is a magazine that has published some of the best short stories ever written. I want to honor the choices made by the editor who, I presume, waded through mountains of submissions, most unsolicited, to bring this to print.

That might not be the best way to appreciate art. You can miss things if you go into a museum, or attend a concert, and quietly demand an understanding of why this work is offered and that another, perhaps your own, is not.  You want first impressions to confirm your best hope–that great art is deserving of its medium–and your worst fear–that your efforts are insufficient, unworthy, second rate, inept.

The importance of the magazine short story died in toward the end of the Twentieth Century when it became the laboratory rat of creative writing classes. Suddenly more people wanted to write short stories than read them. The Internet resurrected the short story, and every other form of art that can be converted into electronic pulses. There are so many short stories on the Internet that you won’t live long enough to read them all. An unknowable quantity are available without charge. You don’t have that you-paid-for-this, might-as-well-get-your-money’s-worth goad to finish the story. The only things will know that you’ve stopped reading the story are the machines owned by the Internet warlords that record everything we do in front of a screen, forever.

The history of art can be explained by money and what we now call technology.  Artists have meager needs, but they must be met or the pen doesn’t move. Some of history’s wealthiest people–the Medicis, the Guggenheims, the Fricks, the Gettys- live on just because they bought stuff, or supported artists. That some of these wealthy people may have done nefarious things tends to be overlooked. Great artists have been great sinners, or have been pointlessly cruel to those who loved them, but the art remains.

Many kinds of art would not exist without the technology, which now is a part of nearly everything we say and do. Science fiction used to be about the effect technological changes may have on current social norms. Though we can find accounts of trips to the moon as far back as the Second Century AD, we wouldn’t have movies about space ships if we didn’t have a way of seeing moving images which, before the invention of the motion picture, was done with words. We wouldn’t have those words if they weren’t written down and reproduced inexpensively on paper in books and magazines.

But we’d still have stories, told wherever human beings gather. You’d think, with all the possible motifs, tropes, cliches, myths and metaphors, we’d reach a point where every story was told. Some would say that we have. You see these people waving a single book, typically a sacred text. You hear them insisting that everything you need to know is inside, and that to look elsewhere is a sin. Alas, you can read a text again and find new meanings. You can go home again, and find new meaning. The best narrative endings are meaningful. We feel that whatever brought us to this point has been worthwhile.

I continue to read and, about eight paragraphs in, I find a description of a sexual act. The act, and the words that describe it,  would not appear in this magazine some years ago.  Famous battles against government and cultural censorship are part of the folklore of the Twentieth Century.  Some artists suffered when their work was branded indecent or obscene. Others profited. William Faulkner attained a national reputation with the publication of Sanctuary, a novel with a brutal rape scene. I read Sanctuary in college. I didn’t think it was Faulkner’s best, and the rape scene seemed gratuitous–something Faulkner tossed in just to shock people. I found Henry Miller’s ravings about his paltry sex life monotonous. James Joyce was definitely writing about sex in Ulysses, but did he have to? Hemingway’s sex scenes were silly.

The long battle to write freely about what people do with their privates, in private or in public, was not altogether won. Nowadays there is such an art to finding and proclaiming offense, on the Internet and off, that I wonder how many great things may have been accomplished if people hadn’t burned up so much energy and bile. I’m not doubting that the offenses were real–the art of making enemies goes way, way back. The art of living with enemies, regardless of our responsibility in creating them, remains a work in progress.

I read this story and ask if it was necessary to include a vulgarity. Almost immediately, I qualify vulgarity, a word that descends from the Latin for “common” and “ordinary” that unfairly implies that such detailed depictions are common and ordinary. They are not. What is most common is the description of sex through taboo language. What is better is the use of metaphor, simile, implication and wit. Like many human endeavors, human sexuality is ultimately beyond description. When it is contained in a written narrative, the reader gains inadvertent insights into the narrator by what is left out.

I continue reading and the first-person narrator suggests a way the story may turn out, and then immediately discredits that ending as the kind that would be typical if this story were fiction, which is isn’t. But it is.

I’ve encountered similar tropes in thrillers in which the naive, fresh-faced hero is told by the grizzled veteran that what they have experienced isn’t what happens on TV, or in movies, that this is real life.

But it isn’t. I quote the title of David Slavitt’s short story collection: Short Stories Are Not Real Life. Real life is ultimately beyond containment or summation in any art form. Real life is too frequently messy, meaningless, pointlessly cruel, surfeit with failed climaxes and unresolved tension. We turn to art because of what the author leaves out.

Why did the author leave in that pointless aside about this story not being fiction? Was this an attempt at the irony that leads to the alienation inherent in Brechtian drama? Or did the author assume that I was so far into the story that I would trust his character to be capable of trite observation?

A few pages later the narrator is about to make a decision that, if made, will confirm the desperation, pointlessness and hopelessness of all that has happened so far. The position of this decision suggests that I am nearing the climax of the story. The decision is made and–surprise!–the preceding action wasn’t desperate, pointless and hopeless after all. A story in which characters spend most of their time reacting, with few attempts at action make things worse, leads to an ending that does not resolve tension or conflict, but isn’t so bad, as endings go.

If a story becomes a quest for the reader, must it end in banality?

Reading this story has not made a qualitative change in my life. It has not lit up the sky, as I had wanted to do with my work. It has not delivered to me a sense of wonder.  It has not challenged received values and then comfortably restored them, as is the custom with most television comedy and drama. Super people haven’t thrown things at each other. I have not seen the inside of a space ship.

I have seen the inside of a simple, somewhat uninteresting human situation, in a magazine that, despite short stories that I’d rather not read, every once in a while, publishes one that tells me, writing stories is a worthwhile thing to do.

Maybe next time.









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