Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Another Voice Heard From

The New York Times had an essay by Stephen King on Sunday titled "What Ails the Short Story."

King edited The Best American Short Stories 2007. In addition to reading submissions sent to him by the acquiring editor, he bought dozens of magazines like Harper's, The New Yorker and Zoetrope. He bemoans the fact that those magazines are not found on the top shelves of bookstores. He had to get down on his hands and knees to find the publications he wanted.

After reading hundreds of possibilities, King concludes: "Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience."

But, he says, "Talent can’t help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks. It gets emotional. It struts its stuff. If these stories have anything in common, it’s that sense of emotional involvement, of flipped-out amazement. I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect, and when I find one that is all-out emotionally assaultive — like 'Sans Farine,' by Jim Shepard — I grab that baby and hold on tight."

Some of you will remember my post from a month ago here when I said the purpose of all fiction is to evoke emotion in the reader.

One of the classic errors newbie writers make is focussing too much attention on details like events or descriptions and neglecting emotions. I'm not sure why this is, but I do know a novel that does not evoke emotions in me leaves me cold and unsatisfied.

I admire clever plotting, but I treasure those books that make me feel.

Read King's essay here.

4 comments:

The Anti-Wife said...

I too want to feel the story - not just the emotions of the people but the emotions of the place. So many stories lack depth. Great post.

Stephen Parrish said...

I loved this passage:

No need to check out The Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year in a special issue and criticizing everyone else’s the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them.

Yes!

The first half of the twentieth century was the golden age of the American short story. I don't blame readers for not buying the magazines anymore, or booksellers for placing the magazines on the bottom shelf. I blame writers for writing stories in which nothing happens.

Colleen said...

I've never been a fan of short stories. There, I've said it. My bias out of the bag. If the story is a good one, I get greedy. I want to know more, to watch the characters grow, to see how things turn out. Generally, though, it seems that many short stories are either too experimental or too contrived for my taste. I've given up on them.

Alex said...

My agent and I had a discussion about this article, and wondered if genre short stories might have a greater shelf-life (and marekting potential) than so-called "literary" short stories. Certainly the genres (horror, SF, etc.) seem to at least encourage imagination.