Thinking About and Writing the Long Short Story

November 7th, 2009 by Philip

Writing the Short Long

Philip teaching a Fiction Workshop at Spalding
Philip teaching a Fiction Workshop at Spalding

I believe I can say that I was one of the first literary writers you sort of know to use a personal computer.  It was an Osborne I, and the word processor (what an outrageous term that was at the time) was WordStar, a true miracle of its day.  (William F. Buckley once called WordStar his “brother.”)  Wow.  Our retyping ourselves hell was over.  I hope whoever figured WordStar out is living well today or has risen to sit at the right hand of God if that seat isn’t taken.  Anyway, an inheritance from my grandmother, $2000, fixed me up with one of the first portable computers. It was 1982 and I was thirty six.

Because I’d been a writer a long time by then, who spent many long years typing and retyping (not a bad way to learn the craft), the computer was an astonishing leap forward.  From Model T to Cessna 210, turboprop with a retractable gear and pressurized cabin – that’s the degree of change. I remember in Murray, KY standing over the shoulder of someone who was demo-ing an Apple desktop (Apple I?), the late 1970’s. I watched that cursor, sort of yellow, dance across the black screen.  I watched text get moved around on the page, words inserted.  In that one Kubrick movie, the opening sequence shows cavemen, who were way more monkey than human, suddenly discover using tools.  In Murray that day, watching that guy, forgive me, “word process” (geeeez it’s still pretty ugly that term), I felt like I was watching the second opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Soon after that, we hurled into, as the man said in “Pulp Fiction,” a time of transition.  The first story I wrote on the Osborne, I mean to say actually composed on the computer, was an autobiographical dump using baseball as the ostensible subject. The story was “Infield.”  I never imagined it would be in any book, much less my own. It was a long story from the start, roughly 8,500 words.  (With the computer, the average length of my stories leaped by a whopping 5,000 words.)  This limited the market, because the literary magazines were geared for, actually dictated, a rather standard length of a short story, 3 to 5 thousand words.  You could get by with 6,000, though they might ask you to cut.  You would endure a short chat with the editor, who had you so very over the barrel, about how the story was fat in the beginning and a little confusing there in the middle and not tight enough in the end, and – basically — take out two pages, he’d tell you, and it’d be all fixed, would perfectly, no MIRACULOUSLY, coincide with the space he had in the magazine!  The sneakily fine Florida Review was the first to take a really long story of mine, “Dakota Feed and Grain,” named after at restaurant in Murray.  Roughly 1990.  That story was 10,000 words.  The editor, your friend and mine, the estimable Russell Kesler.  The Florida Review never even commented on the length.

When I won the Flannery O’Connor Award, that collection contained stories that were first crafted pre-computer but were refined and grown using WordStar and also stories composed by hand and then worked to final form with WordStar and, finally, some stories, “Infield” being the first, written and evolved entirely on the computer.  I hadn’t planned for it to be so long. It bloomed at my fingertips. It was like mainlining a story. Most of the real work was in revision, sculpting the first draft to final, but hell, on the computer you COULD revise, thoroughly – and still make it to work by 8 o’clock.

I’m calling this blog, which almost certainly is about the fiction form best termed the “novella” – I’m calling it “The Long Short” (as in the Long Short Story), but it turns out one person’s short is another’s long:  I found this review by Janet Maslin in the New York Times just a couple of weeks ago, an article called “Bite Size Legal Trouble and Suspense,” about Grisham’s new book Ford County, which travelers in airports are already waving around because that’s how it goes with John Grisham.  Maslin says, “John Grisham had some story ideas that he didn’t think could sustain full length narrative [full length narrative! – like “Brokeback Mountain” wasn’t a full length narrative but a  broken little chip off some fully legit full length narrative block].  So [I’m still quoting Maslin] he did what he customarily does:  whatever he wants to.  Was anyone at Doubleday going to argue with that?  Mr. Grisham took seven of his unused plot ideas and turned them into a sharp, lean tale free of subplots and padding [emphasis mine – implication:  novels contain padding].  At an average length of over 40 pages[she goes on to say], these narratives are shorter than novellas but longer than conventional short stories….” [Janet Maslin has some version of the precise measure short and long well in mind, very impressive, mysterious to the rest of us – These next lines, get ready for them, they are hurtful to a starving short story writes – Maslin writes:], “For a fledgling author, this format would be a tough sell.  For Mr. Grisham, it’s a vacation from whatever grueling work goes into the construction of fully rigged best sellers.  The change invigorates him in ways that show up on the page.”

Maslin apparently doesn’t see (this from me, a story writer) what the “change” is that invigorates Grisham.  It’s the change to the long short form, baby.  The long story is a real form, like a sonnet, like a portrait (in painting), like a still life – the short story, long or short, isn’t detritus conveniently made into something or other from the notebook between bestsellers.  It’s the short long for John Grisham, and the long short for me, and for many of you, and for Andre Dubus and Richard Yates and Alice Munro and Andrea Barrett and F. Scott Fitgerald and Stephen Crane and Robert Stone and Ann Beattie.  It’s all the same thing, man, art in words.  Yeah, formerly — Doubleday exists for John Grisham, because Doubleday is novels, and novels are John Grisham, and that’s fine but we’re talking about the NBA here, lottery winners, 50 or 60 literary lottery winners in the American literary world, but in 2010 there are millions of writers and only thousands of readers [I exaggerate but not much to make my point], and the day is coming to an end when Doubleday tells us what size of picture to paint because of what size of wall they like to hang things on.

You recall it was magazines that sustained the short story, back when we had magazines.  But you could also, most assuredly without stretching it, say it the other way, that the short story sustained the magazines.  It was a time when readers outnumbered writers.  The sea change was afoot before the computer but our beautiful little laptops sealed the deal, make no mistake about it.

One of the stories in my Flannery collection, the newest at the time I won, was “Forty Martyrs,” a giant at upwards of 40 pages, and the Flannery O’Connor series editor, Charles East (rest in peace: he’s just died Oct. 1, a great, kind, good man) suggested I take it out because it made the book too long.  I did, and this is not a criticism of Charles – it was the right thing, the book galleys were 275 pages without “Forty Martyrs.”

That was in the ‘80’s.  In the ‘90’s, “Forty Martyrs” became the anchor tenant of my novel-in-stories, all of the stories in it 8,000 words or more.  When I wrote my novel, Past Tense, about how the past haunts us, I gave it 75 page chapters.  I call it a novel-in-novellas.  To give it some kind of form, I tried very hard to make each chapter exactly 75 manuscript pages, not by fattening the short ones and trimming the long ones, but just by targetting that as I wrote — how different is that from giving a poem fourteen lines iambic and a rhyme scheme?  Form is good.  Grace and form have been in fiction all along.

Yes, I make the leap that the long short story, which I’ll arbitrarily define as a work of fiction longer than 7,000 words and shorter than a novella (aah hahaha – good one, I kill me), or maybe I could vaguely define it as a story so long most magazines couldn’t print it – anyway, I’ll make the leap that the short story became a real form with the appearance of the magazines, or at least that their existences were symbiotic, and that the long short story, although it existed before, became a real contemporary story form after writers began to compose on their computers.  At first editors saw the long story as full of fluff and fat that needed cutting.  Later when they too worked almost exclusively on the computer, you didn’t hear that so much.  It coincided with, within ten years, a wave of magazines going under, and newspapers soon to follow, so editors had bigger fish to fry than to complain if an established writer came knocking with something longer than the editor had in mind.  This is probably an established fact, that the use of the computer by writers helped the longer story to be an option though it put pressure on an already to the breaking point magazine publishing industry, so it all comes down to Philip Deaver’s grandmother and the Osborne I, just kidding; but sometimes it’s fun to contemplate one’s personal involvement, even if minute, in the establishment of an established fact.

In the ‘80’s, suddenly if something was short and otherwise trimmed down (I’m speaking in generalizations to make a larger point), it was called “minimalism,” and even the minimalists revered the work of Alice Munro which was invariably long (though she reportedly has never felt much compulsion to write a novel – I think she has one).  But by 1990, not so much minimalism anymore, and half the writing world was on Macs and the other half on PCs.  Ray Carver’s last story “Errand,” gracefully long and lush, clearly was rendered unminimally after he was out from under the mothy wing of Gordon Lish.

The lengthening of the literary short story isn’t all because of the publishing industry’s going slack or the rise of the computer.  The final short story of Joyce’s Dubliners is a masterwork of all time, “The Dead,” not usually thought of as a novella not because of its length but because it focuses on a group of characters moving through a single evening, which will get it classified for sure as a long short, not a short long.  The final short story of Annie Proulx’s Close Range:  Wyoming Stories was “Brokeback Mountain,” a story that must be over 10,000 words (someone out there will know or can find out).  Laura van den Berg’s title story for her new collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us is also over 10,000 words.  Nancy Zafris, the new Series Editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award, observed to me recently that a current winner of the prize has a story 68 pages long, surely pushing the Flannery O’Connor Award high-end limit.  This summer Alice Munro placed a story in Harper’s that was called a novella on the cover of the magazine, and Munro regularly places long stories in the New Yorker.  Her collections are full of long stories, she’s known for her winding road plots and for stories that depend partly on the passage of considerable time for some of their impact and resonance.  Does the fact that so many well-known contemporary story writers cite Alice Munro as their exemplar and ideal mean that long stories are experiencing increased acceptance, that if you are a writer of stature your long story might be allowed to take up all those expensive hard copy pages within a magazine?  Does the slow rise of digital publication mean the gradual reconsideration of traditional length limitations, all else being equal even though, elephant in the room alert, all else isn’t equal?  Could it be that, in this time of there being (elephant à)millions of writers and only thousands of readers, and all the millions of writers are bamming out their work on high powered laptops – could it be that the tendency of the computer-era writer is to write longer not just to write longer but because it’s a natural form and they’ve got just the technology to achieve it still make it to work by 8 o’clock (because they will have to have a day job)?

In the past it was axiomatic that the reason you didn’t write a long story or a novella was because “there’s no place to publish it.”  It seems apparent to me that the hard copy magazine markets that publish short fiction are getting more friendly to the longer story (they are less frequently accusing writers of “losing control” and/or writing fat), and perhaps if we can agree that online markets for stories are growing in number, markets that don’t even think in terms of numbers of pages, perhaps the world in general is getting there, and perhaps John Grisham knows it.  Is that optimistic enough for ya?

Many of you know that I follow the work of Richard Ford.  I’ve read his every published word – okay, except for that first novel — and it’s my opinion that his stories are much better than his novels which are pretty danged good.  I first heard from him the quote I always use in these lectures and once thought was his, but he advised me came from Randall Jarrell, definition of a novel:

A novel is a long work of fiction that there’s something wrong with.

Ford over the years has been a spokesman for the short story, and has edited two volumes for Granta plus, I believe, one of the Best American Short Story anthologies.  If you have never seen it, please read Ford’s hilarious and spot-on introduction to his reverent acknowledgement of the long short in his Granta Book of the American Long Story, now eleven years old, containing great ones from Peter Taylor, Jane Smiley, Philip Roth, William Styron, Stanley Elkin, Andrea Barrett, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates of course, Barry Hannah, and Edwidge Danticat.  I hope Granta does it again one of these days and that Ford, who better?, edits it.

I believe that Updike’s stories are better than his novels, and Robert Stone’s are awful good too, and Ray Carver of course and Andre Dubus and Alice Munro, they’re devoted to the form, and I do believe we must cease to view the short story as a form fledgling writers use to become real writers so they can write novels and that bestselling writers use to dump the growing detritus in their notebooks-of-gold between their gleaming bestsellers.  If you have some doubt of this, read “The Dead” again (not a bag of fluff rendered fat with a word-gushing laptop but a masterwork in the long short story form by an author capable of writing both short short and long long) an exquisite beauty in and of itself, a master work that renders

at worst silly,

at best moot,

a discussion of the long and/or short of it.
Coming soon:  a discussion of the craft of the long short story

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Category: blog, contemporary fiction, portfolio 2 comments
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  1. Foust says:

    Hi Phil–
    Little late to the table here–it’s a snow day in Richmond and I’m luxuriating in visiting blogs I enjoy. Needless to say, I loved reading this piece in particular, as the short form keeps being my fiction method of choice. I think that in writing–like in many other things(ha ha)–we need to get past our fixation on size. Sometimes a story can be so force-fed in pursuit of page quantity that it topples under its own weight. Maybe the trick is finding what works for each piece without resorting to using word counts as a gauge. Stories will be the length they will be.

    Cheers!
    Foust

  2. Jim says:

    I’ve always considered the short story as a higher art form. It’s a challenge to be able to hit someone memorably within the space of a few thousand words, or even three lines.

    Keep up the good work !

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