Last Saturday I got up bright and early at 10am to go to the Books by the Banks Book Festival. (No, 10am isn’t actually bright and early, but it felt bright and early on the morning after Halloween.)
I began by wandering around through the tables of authors with their books. They had a variety of genres from teen fiction to military history. In my quick perusal I noticed a good amount (maybe 20%) of the authors were self-published. While I’m excited in some ways that self-publishing is becoming less stigmatized, I could pick out many of the self-published books just by looking at them. The quality of the cover design and printing showed that the book wasn’t done by a publishing house: they just looked a little cheaper. Right or wrong, that impacts people’s perception of the quality of content.
I also noticed—not surprisingly—that the authors who seemed to sell the most books were the ones who were off their chairs talking to readers. Their engaging personalities transformed casual passersbys into purchasers. Their demeanor convinced readers that the book’s content was as intelligent and engaging as their conversation they were having with the author. I bought Divided Lives: The Untold Stories of Jewish-Christian Women in Nazi Germany after a fascinating conversation with the author, Cynthia A. Crane, about her book and her family history.
After that I attended the panel discussion “The Short Story: Dead or Alive (We’d Like to Know).” It featured Moira Crone, author of What Gets Into Us, and Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff (which was chosen by Amazon as one of its Best Books of the 2008, Top 100 Editors’ Picks. Number 21, in fact). The session was moderated by Jason Gargano from CityBeat.
It’s no secret that publishers are reluctant to publish volumes of short fiction and that most readers are more interested in novels. But it’s difficult to say which is the cause and which is the effect. Market changes, such as fewer magazines that publish short stories, have changed the landscape, but if there aren’t books of short stories published, how do publishers know we don’t read them? I’m sure there are volumes of research and reasoning, but I love short stories and I think, if given the chance, other readers would too. One of my very favorite works of literature is E.B. White’s short story “The Second Tree from the Corner,” which I discovered in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. (See, people do buy short story collections! Well, I’m not the typical American book consumer; I had to narrow down my book wishlist to 25 books. I’m also the only person I’ve ever met who’s read “The Second Tree from the Corner.” Oh well.)
Here are the highlights of Crone and Pollock’s discussion:
Both authors agreed that the short story is not dead (though they do each have a stake in it being kept alive).
Crone lamented the excess descriptions and “stuff” in novels: “I’ll read for information, but I don’t read for descriptions of people’s kitchens.” She also wonders if perhaps short stories with their tight format and lively language might fit our culture better than novels. Crone said she enjoys the way the subtlety of short stories contrasts with the suspense of novels. She points to narrative.com as an example of the short story flourishing. (Apparently it’s a site where excellent writers publish original short stories. For some reason I can’t access the site, so I don’t know if it’s any good.) She’s written novels and short stories, but says that, like more writers, her short stories are by far of a higher quality than her longer works.
Pollock said that perhaps if we looked closer we see that the lack of short story collections on the New York Times bestseller list isn’t that far off from the general lack of truly literary work on the list. He sees the success of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth as hope for short fiction. Pollock emphasized the imperative that short fiction has to put its best foot forward in the first paragraph or page in order to get published. He even admits that in some ways he would’ve been better off making his connected stories into a novel (but I’d say #21 on the Amazon 100 isn’t doing too bad), but it never occurred to him to do it any other way.
Their collective advice to writers was the typical, “Keep writing. Keep submitting. Don’t give up.” In some ways that seemed anti-climatic, but in the end there’s no magic potion. They spoke from their own experience, and their commitment to their writing and the short story form emanated from every word.