Andromeda: Downwardly mobile

My first love was journalism: the kind of writing you get paid to do, usually. With a side of travel writing: also fairly marketable.

My second love was novel-length fiction: hard to sell, but I managed to do it. (Will lightning strike twice? Still hoping!)

In 2008/2009 I took a little detour into screenland and since then I’ve earned just a bit of money doing modestly scaled film-related work, most of it local. Where I originally imagined writing features I’ve quickly turned to writing small scripts about things like climate change. (Instead of Titanic, only melting icebergs — why can’t I stay fixed on the more lucrative track?)

But for the most part, screenwriting was just a detour, and in the last year I’ve been reading lots of short stories: Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, older classics, the latest young geniuses anointed by the New Yorker, and this week, Tobias Wolff (Our Story Begins). Wolff will be visiting Antioch in LA, where I attend a low-residency MFA. I love Wolff’s novel, Old School, and enjoyed his presentations at Kachemak Bay some time ago, but I hadn’t read many of his stories.

I used to say — almost brag — that short stories, for the most part, just weren’t my cup of tea. It was almost a relief to finish certain notable collections and realize I didn’t care for them. Why a relief? Because short stories are even harder to sell than novels. And a really great short story is no easier to write than a novel. It feels good not to pine for something beyond reach. Just as I’m glad I don’t like beer (yet another source of calories; I drink plenty of wine already) or good whiskey (expensive!) I was glad I didn’t have a burning passion to enter the downwardly mobile, intensely competitive world of the short story writer, a world only slightly more financially rewarding than the world of the poet.

Problem is, I kept reading, finding more and more examples of really good stories. They grow on you. You start finding flashes of brilliant characterization and humor and great dialogue and cleverly compressed plot and before you know it, you’re leaving the latest novel unread and cracking open a previously-ignored anthology. You’re reading a story like Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” and realizing you like it even better now than when you read it or heard it read a few years ago. You’re wondering if that plot living in your head, which you originally thought was better served by the novel or screenplay form, could be condensed into something smaller and more gem-like, and all the more artistically satisfying for its brevity — and most likely, at least coming from a late-bloomer’s ambivalent pen, unsaleable.

Groan. (Resist! Resist!)

I leave you with this link from the New Yorker, featuring author TC Boyle discussing Tobias Wolff’s work and reading from “Bullet in the Brain.

Your turn: The best short story or story collection you’ve read lately?

9 thoughts on “Andromeda: Downwardly mobile”

  1. I love the short story form and have always wondered why publishers shy away from collections. Maybe it's changing a bit. My latest favorite collections:

    The Man Who Swam with Beavers by Nancy Lord

    Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

    Not lately read, but perennial faves:

    The Luck of Roaring Camp by Bret Harte

    Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston

    Individual short stories:
    Fish Story by Rick Bass published in Atlantic Fiction 2009 issue.

    Two stories read long ago which gripped me with pretty fierce admiration for the skill of the writer, and which I still think about many years later:

    Welding with Children by Tim Gatreaux

    Puttermesser in Paradise by Cynthia Ozick. (later, the story became a book by the same title.)

    ********** Therese Harvey

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Nice list, Therese!

    Your mention of Olive Kitteridge reminded me that I read that and Vann's Legend of a Suicide nearly back-to-back this year. They were both good examples — I hope! — of the marketplace's occasional (ok, rare) openness to story collections and especially, linked-story collections that work almost like a novel.

  3. Runaway, Alice Munro. And her Beggar Maid. Both beautifully done, and well-recognized for excellence. But that's Canada.

  4. I tell you, though, the stress of possible downward mobility beats the crap out of the stress of knowing you're not pursuing what you really want to do with your life. Go! Write short stories!

    After my downward mobility from CPA to nonprofit staffer to (un?under?)-employed writer, I'm writing whatever the hell I want. If it's a limerick that day, so be it.

    BTW, funny that you posted about this today. I recently picked up Katherine Anne Porter's big fat book of short stories, and simultaneously am reading Ron Carlson's "Ron Carlson Writes a Story," where he goes through his own process of – you guessed it – writing a specific story. Interesting stuff.

  5. When I think about the literature that has made the biggest impact on me I realize it has come in short story form over and over again.

    For me it's terribly difficult to write but it forces me to work at my absolute smartest. There is no room for a bad sentence or even a misplaced word.

    At the library where I work it seems as though short story collections are gaining in popularity. There is hope for the short story writer!!

  6. Best short story collection I've read recently? Has to be Benjamin Percy's "Refresh, Refresh." And that about sums up his writing: refreshing.

  7. Nathan Englander's collection has a title that's a bit embarassing to ask for in a book store but the stories are magical. Book title: "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." Favorite story in the collection is "The Gilgul of Park Avenue."

  8. I have to admit to a twinge of disappointment at seeing that the greatest American short story writer to date, Edgar A. Poe, has yet to show up.

    I'm of to read "The Black Cat", then "The Mystery of Marie Roget" followed by "The Tell-Tale Heart". Great fiction for a wonderful time of year.

  9. Really loving Annie E. Proulx's latest collection of shorts in Fine Just The Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Varied, haunting, precise, brilliant, I can't wait to see where she'll take me next.

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