Be My Victim: Paul Tremblay on The State of the Short Story
In my last column, Laird Barron commented, albeit briefly, on the marginalization of the short story. The subject seemed to interest readers, so this time around my guest, Paul Tremblay, and I will discuss the current state of the short story and perhaps a bit of history as to how we got to this point.
Paul Tremblay has been an editor/co-editor for Chizine, Fantasy Magazine and a handful of anthologies. He is an accomplished short story author with a number of award nominations under his belt and is the author of two short fiction collections: Compositions for the Young and Old and, his latest, In the Mean Time. He is also the author of the novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep till Wonderland.
To make this easy on folks, we’re going to use the terms “short story” or “short fiction” to mean anything that isn’t novel length. So novelettes and novellas will also be covered, even if they aren’t identified as such. M’kay?
Let’s set to commence:
Lee Thomas: Growing up, my preference in fiction was always for novels. I liked immersing myself in a world and hanging with characters for days on end, rather than being introduced to them one minute and saying goodbye to them the next. Only later in my reading – when Barker hit me upside the head with his Books of Blood – did I begin to appreciate the possibilities of the short story. How about you?
Paul Tremblay:I never grew up. I mean, growing up, I wasn’t much of a reader, which is a source of anxiety and lack of self-esteem. I forever wish that I had started writing and reading sooner than I did. Anyway, and coincidentally enough, I just penned an essay for Beatrice.com and their “Selling-Shorts” section. I won’t rehash the whole thing, but it’s about the short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, that changed my life. Changed me–like Michael Landon into the Teenage Werewolf!–from happy-go-lucky math major into a wanton reader. Shortly after taking my first college lit course and reading Oates and Flannery O’Connor, my at-the-time girlfriend (now wife) bought me Stephen King’s The Stand to read. Then I went and read the rest of his books. Clive Barker and his Books of Blood soon followed. I spent two solid years in graduate school (yeah, still mathematics) reading all the horror fiction I could in my spare time. I don’t recall ever thinking that I had a bias for short fiction over the long form, but when I look back on those two years, many of the books that still stick out in my memory are short fiction collections: Barker’s, King’s Night Shift, Joyce Carol Oates’s Haunted.
Clearly, there’s more folks out there than just us who were bowled over by Barker’s Books of Blood, “In the Hills, the Cities,” in particular. And I like how you put it: the possibilities of the short story. I think that’s the appeal to me as both a writer and a reader. The short story allows for more ambiguity, and perhaps, the form (when done well) allows for the reader to fill in some of those possibilities her/himself. Sometimes you don’t need a two hour movie when a single photograph will tell the whole story; or tell a bunch of stories, right? Right.
LT: You are correct, sir. What strikes me as interesting is that culturally, we’re seeing diminishing attention spans, yet the short story – perfect for a quick hit of fiction – has not become the form of choice for readers. Quite the opposite seems to be true, if we look to New York publishing for examples. Novels with astronomical word counts, and an all but mandatory decree that all books be part of a larger series, are prevalent, whereas the popularity of short story collections and anthologies has dwindled. Do you have an opinion as to why this might be?
PT: Everything you say is true, at least it is from my point of view. Anecdotally speaking, I had no designs on writing a follow-up to my first novel The Little Sleep, but the publisher wanted one. Perhaps the long novels and/or series, despite the length do cater to shorter attention spans. The reader has to do less work in keeping up with the character(s) they already know so well and it only becomes a matter of following their favorites along a simple Hollywoodesque, or even video game kind of plot line. I’m being simplistic, of course. And bitter!
Oddly enough, though, just within the past few years, the genre anthology (or the reprint anthology) has seen a resurgence. John Joseph Adam’s reprint anthologies in particular have done and continue to do quite well. Sure his Living Dead zombie antho was the best selling of the bunch but his apocalyptic, vampire, and Star Trek anthologies have sold very well, too. Kathy Sedia’s Running with the Pack sold well for Prime Books, as have some of their other anthologies.
But at the same time, those aren’t New York published anthologies, are they?
NYC publishers have definitely seemed to shy away from the genre single author collection, which in some ways is ironic given the history of the horror genre, the genre of the campfire-tale, right?, and its roots in short fiction: Poe, Lovecraft, Jackson, Matheson, and so many more. I mean, horror readers will still read short fiction, I think. Maybe. Anyway, NYC, yeah, they don’t do horror collections anymore, but they still put out quite a few general lit single author collections. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (which is a dark, dark book, fyi) was a pretty big seller in ’09, especially considering it was a hardcover short fic collection from a new author.
The big question is who does the short story–as a form–appeal to? Who reads them? Besides us, right? And by us I mean writers. There’s compelling evidence to suggest that the short story is where today’s writers do their training or their apprenticeship. The speculative fiction community has a vibrant short fiction readership so it seems, but how much of that readership is of other writers or trying-to-be writers? When I was slush reading for Chizine and Fantasy Magazine, I can’t tell you how many cover letters I got that mentioned “graduate of Clarion pick-a-direction” and other workshops. Hell, even this math-teaching-schmoe taught a workshop at Emerson College (it was a lot of fun, I must say). I don’t have an MFA, but it seems like many of those writers are learning how to write primarily in the form of short fiction. Interesting article on slate.com about how MFA programs use short fiction.
LT: While it’s true The Living Dead (I & II) et. al., aren’t New York published, New York is paying attention as exemplified by projects like The New Dead, edited by Christopher Golden. If it sells, the big publishers are on it. And it should be pointed out that Ellen Datlow has published and continues to publish exceptional anthologies through New York houses. That noted, the glory days of short horror fiction – commercially, not aesthetically – are done, at least for the time being, which is a shame when you consider the striking new talents who work primarily in that form: Laird Barron, John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud, Livia Llewellyn etc.
For now, I’d like to get back to the idea of attention spans – or reader investment. We have discussed the ambiguity often inherent in the short form, which requires readers to not only invest their time and imagination in the story, but also invest beyond the reading. Ambiguity requires consideration. Further, every new story starts the reader at zero: they don’t know the characters, the setting, the world they are stepping into. They may not like it, and reading takes effort, so there is a natural hesitance to head down an unknown path. I think culturally, we’ve become increasingly artistically intolerant. With iTunes, Netflix, On-Demand, we don’t have to hear, see or experience anything we don’t pretty much know we’re going to like going in. Now it seems to be, “I like this. I want this. Give me more of this, and don’t distract me with crap I might not like.” Obviously, having a taste for a particular kind of music or writing isn’t new, but now technology has caught up, and I think as entertainment consumers we’re being trained to near-complete artistic myopia.
PT: I think I’m in Devil’s Advocate mode….muhahahaha! When were the glory days of horror short fiction commercially, though? It seems to me the odds of starting a career based on short fiction success primarily haven’t changed a whole heck of a lot. Definitely not a whole lot better, but I don’t think a whole lot worse either. The avenues to publication certainly have changed, and granted they’re not NYC publishers, but plenty of larger indies do publish genre short fiction, and some of them do it quite well. Recently, Laird Barron and Kelly Link have managed to establish important careers without having published a single novel.
The publishing industry is in a state of flux (to be kind), but in a sense, it’s an opportunity for indie publishers who don’t have the crushing overhead of the bigs, to swoop in, publish vibrant fiction, and pick up readers. I think we’re seeing that already with Night Shade, Prime, Dzanc Books, and Chizine, to name a handful.
Sorry, I got sidetracked. Anyway, back to the short attention span, right? Mine or in general? Heh.
I agree that reading a short fiction collection/anthology can be more difficult (or, cause the reader to expend more effort) than reading a novel. And you make a compelling argument/case about technology’s effect on attention span/entertainment consumption habits. On the whole I agree with you. There’s no doubt the instant gratification culture and the technology that allows it, is changing all modes of entertainment. However, I think the social history of human kind has always suffered from a near-complete artistic myopia. Down through the centuries, artists (and other revolutionary thinkers) always have had to work extra hard get their controversial and progressive ideas heard/noticed. So I don’t think we can lay that blame of cultural artistic-myopia solely on technology. I do agree, particularly in the United States, that the myopia ain’t getting any better. I think a big part of the problem is the sheer volume of information, misinformation, and choices we have now. What books/news/blogs/magazines do we choose to read out of the thousands upon thousands of titles and websites at our fingertips? Even to people who want to identify themselves as well read, cutting the wheat from the chaff is becoming overwhelming. More times than not, we’ll–as you said–stick with what’s comfortable, knowable, and/or we’ll let someone else tell us what to read instead of doing our own digging, deciding, exploring, etc.
LT Dude, quit messing with the flow. I have no idea which thread to pick up on. But since we’re running out of space, I guess I don’t have to pick up on any of them. Quel dommage!
Here’s the game: Top 5 anthologies or single author collections from the past 5 years. Since we’re both involved with the Shirley Jackson Awards this year, let’s not comment on any 2010 titles. Ready set… 5 Stories by Peter Straub, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron, Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow, and The Haunted Heart by Jameson Currier.
Fine I won’t name any 2010 titles, but it was a fantastic year for short story collections. So, top 5 from the last 5 eh? That’s tough. I’m going to cheat a little bit and not repeat any of yours as they were all excellent choices, and we’d have some overlap. And I also won’t name any close friends. So there.
Here’s a fresh five: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson. Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard, The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa, The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier, and Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. With the exception of Link, these books were not marketed as spec fic, but, if it matters, they are.
LT Many thanks, Paul! You’ve put my flow in shock but added to my to-be-read pile.
As always audience participation is encouraged. Let’s hear what you think about the short story or those folks who are working wonders in that form. I could list a couple dozen, but that would take the fun out of it for you.
Now get to work.
Filed under: Be My Victim
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