Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stephen King (and my modest self) on the short story

Stephen King writes the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007, which he edited, and which I really must get hold of. Dave Lull kindly told me that the intro was published in the New York Times, and it is eminently worth reading. Theme: Is the American short story alive? Yes. Is the American short story well? No.

Now, as it happens I don't really enjoy Mr King's novels at all. We won't go into why. But several decades ago, when Mr King was a newbie, a leading American agent told me that, even if you don't like his material, you had to admit that, by God, the man could write.

He still can. And he puts his finger very precisely on what is wrong with the modern short story, whether American or otherwise. It's pussy-whipped, that's what's wrong with it. I speak metaphorically, and I paraphrase Mr King, but that's the gist of his argument. And the pussy to whom vast numbers of modern short-story writers are beholden is the vain hope that they might actually, one day, get published in the New Yorker. As if that goal was one which any sane person would consider important! The New Yorker short story is traditionally one in which absolutely nothing happens.

The audience for short stories has shrunk to the point where most of those reading the few magazines that still publish such stories are reading them in order to find out what gets published there, in the hope that they can do the same; and thus win a fellowship, or a teaching post somewhere, or acquire reputation as a writer of sensitivity and style. Thought and care for the kind of reader who used to read the pulp magazines and now watches football or reads the tabloids is a long way from their mind.

King read some hundred of stories before making the final selection for his anthology, and many of them, he says, 'felt show-offy rather than entertaining'. They were 'written for editors and teachers rather than readers', and they read like a 'fraidy-cat's writing-school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream of consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called "the true meaning of a pear".'

This is a recipe for disaster, as is blatantly obvious to anyone who bothers to read a so-called literary magazine.

Stephen King's intro to his 2007 collection is worth reading for its wonderful, loose, easy style, if for nothing else. Look how he expresses the truth with such informal but absolutely spot-on phrases as 'fraidy-cat's writing-school imitation'.

Fortunately, all is not entirely lost. There are places where you can find some stories which set out to entertain rather than impress, if you search hard enough, but by golly you have to search. And if there is one message which comes through from Mr King, with my endorsement, it is this: don't be afraid to write the damn thing. Do it your way. For preference, give it some balls, or the female equivalent. And for all our sakes, pay no attention to any of those creative-writing people.

'Talent,' says King, 'can't help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks.' So, light the blue touch-paper and step well back.

Arising out of Stephen King's essay Maud Newton acts as hostess to short-story writer Jean Thompson, who nicely summarises some of the comment which the King NYT essay produced.

And, if you have the time and patience, you might care to look back at my own earlier statement of the position which is now so eloquently expounded by Mr King. On 16 March 2005, I gave some account of the official history of the short story; and then, on 17 March 2005, I provided a true history of the short story. These two essays are, I think, on reading them again, good combative stuff. And I stand by every word.


Gladys Hobson said...

Excuse my ignorance, being a person educated many years ago in a secondary school, but I had no idea there is such a division between short stories for the masses and those for intellectuals.

In fact, should I have been asked about the history of such (before I read GOB's two pieces) I would have been mystified — a history of 'the short story?'
We don't speak of short stories within the Bible — they are stories, however else defined. (I won't go into Evangelical beliefs.) Books of fables and legends — certainly. As children, we had comics to read. Some comics had stories too. Until we had something to compare with the stories we read, they remained 'stories' not 'short stories'. I seem to recall a "Girls book of Heroines" — tales of interest to girls. Enid Blyton books too. Later, at school, we read Mill on the Floss.
I can't recall ever visualising a 'short story' in its own right (so to speak) until we received books of 'short stories' from a book club.

Intellectual snobbery over the whole matter is quite ridiculous!
You would have to be a first-class idiot to read anything you don't really enjoy just to be able to say things about it you don't really mean!

But then, as a doctor used to say when complaining of being poorly:
"There's a lot of it about"!

Lyn LeJeune said...

I will be very interested in what GOB thinks of the stories in the collection King edited. I was taken with his essay on the short story, so was thrilled to read the stories inside. Many of the same old, same old, a few new writers, a few exciting stories. Well,all subjective yes, but I was surprised, because if you take away King's essay from the book, well, ya gotta wonder!
Lyn LeJeune

Anonymous said...

King does make some excellent points about today's short stories, particularly regarding the pompous New Yahkah, et al. Now I shall be interested to see how he applied his opinions to this collection.

Strong self-praise indeed: "There isn’t a single one in this book that didn’t delight me, that didn’t make me want to crow, “Oh, man, you gotta read this!”

I ordered his book and honestly hope I find his words were justified!

Martin said...

The American short story thrives in science fiction and possibly other genres with which I am less familiar, such as fantasy, horror and crime. A good place to start is Hartwell & Kramer's annual anthologies. With genre writers, the customer comes first.

Anonymous said...

As a dedicated reader of The New Yorker for more than 20 years, I will have to agree that the quality of the short fiction is suspect these days. However, what the magazine has lost in fiction it has recaptured in in non-fiction and reviews. The short story is in bad shape, and it probably has to do with with the experimentalists and the burgeoning MFA programs across the land.

Anonymous said...

Stephen King is really hitting a nerve on this. People are figuring out that the short story is dead. To resurrect it now will require a Miracle, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...


I think that the emphasis on "Literary fiction" is the reason behind why short stories are struggling to find readership. If more writers wrote good, entertaining genre stories, instead of trying to write a depressing tale with nothing in it, things might change.

Good post.

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