Recently, I given the good news that my short-story collection–When You Find Us We Will Be Gone–was recently longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize. This is the first–and probably only time–I will share a list with Margaret Atwood. Top prize is 25,000 Euros! You can see the list here.
Today sees publication of one my recent stories, “Take It From Me, Kid, I’m a Clown.” Published by Lunch Ticket (Antioch’s MFA literary magazine), the story is available to read for free on the interwebs.
Here’s the opening:
“Listen kid, I know it’s your birthday and all, that you only turn ten once, and that this is your special day, but, come on, you’re crying over your balloon animal because you wanted a giraffe and you got an Irish Wolfhound, which you say looks retarded, and that I’m retarded; please, give me some respect here—even though I go by Bozo the Clown, I’m no bozo, just part of the franchise—this is my career, my profession…”
Last fall in my fiction class we looked over the rules of several famous and successful writers in this Guardian article and came up with our own list of rules. Mine is below:
- Write for one hour a day. Minimum.
- Try not to make the story predictable. Surprise yourself.
- Create an ending where people say WTF!
- Write about something you know nothing.
- Read the books friends suggest. Don’t just say you will.
- Embody the dialogue. Make it authentic. Make it zip.
- Write things that are beyond your reach.
- Fail as a writer.
- Accept this and rewrite the goddamn thing.
- Value your classmates and your teacher.
Overall, I stuck to these rules quite rigorously and was able to write some strange and powerful fiction–different from my usual fare. During the semester we were not able to tell anybody our rules or mention that we had a covenant with the rest of the class. This, in hindsight, added a layers of secrecy and mystery to the proceedings, and, in some way, drew the class closer together.
So, now, I’m asking: what are your ten rules?
If you’re starting out and can’t tell your Chekhov from your Gogol, an excellent place to begin is to read a historical and taxonomical evaluation of the modern short story. Luckily for you, it’s dealt with in excellent detail in William Boyd’s article, “A Short History of the Short Story.”
Over the years, the books I’ve found to be helpful for fiction writing include Stephen King’s On Writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, Charles Baxter’s Burning Down The House, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer, Alice LaPlante’s Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, and James Wood’s How Fiction Works. But more than reading about craft you must read, read, read: collections of short stories and literary journals. Some of my favorite collections are Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, Ed Falco’s Burning Man, and Joyce Carol Oates’ High Lonesome. Top literary journals include One Story, Southern Review, The Paris Review, Tin House, and many others. See my articles here: sometime ago I made a list, and also attempted a hip journal list! And a compilation of midwest-focused journals.
Although of limited value, several literary journal rankings exist: Clifford Garstang’s list is based upon journals winning Pushcart Prizes. Bookfox also made a list. HTMLGIANT commenters also came up with a cool rundown. In terms of payment for short stories, see my recent entry “Pay and the Short Story.”
Now, after revising and line-editing your stories several times–whether in workshop, through peer assistance, or with the help of a mentor–don’t be perturbed by the weaknesses of your story or become deluded by its apparent greatness. Writing publishable fiction takes multiple drafts and months of work. A good tip is to put your story in a drawer for a month and then re-visit the piece with fresh eyes. Re-write your story again! When you finally do submit work to journals don’t expect to be published first time out. Rejection is part of the writer’s life. Acceptance rates for most journals are often less than 1%. Eventually when you’re ready to assess the marketplace and your story’s place within it, good starting points are the websites duotrope.com, New Pages, and Review Review.
At a reading last year, Tobias Wolff noted that he had not been the best writer at his school or displayed the most talent. Yet he’s the one who became a writing icon and one of America’s current best short story writers. Perseverance and a dedication to the craft kept him going while his peers migrated to other professions. So keep going, one day you may be that writer.
Pre-1978 The Best American Short Story series had a single editor. For decades, from 1915 to 1941, Edward O’Brien fulfilled this role. After his death, Martha Foley took over. Raymond Carver mentions Foley’s importance for American short fiction during his superb 1983 interview with The Paris Review:
Is it true—a friend of yours told me this— that you celebrated your first publication by taking the magazine to bed with you?
That’s partly true. Actually, it was a book, the Best American Short Stories annual. My story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” had just appeared in the collection. That was back in the late sixties, when it was edited every year by Martha Foley and people used to call it that—simply, “The Foley Collection.” The story had been published in an obscure little magazine out of Chicago called December. The day the anthology came in the mail I took it to bed to read and just to look at, you know, and hold it, but I did more looking and holding than actual reading. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with the book there in bed beside me, along with my wife.
The Best American Short Stories 1988 was a strange collection of work. From Raymond Carver’s “Errand” (a story of almost all summary and filled with a heavy dose of biographical material taken from Henry Troyat’s Chekhov) to Majorie Sandor’s enigmatic “Still Life,” there was a wide berth of subject matter, character, and thematic emphasis. Interestingly, 1988 appears to be the first year writers were asked to provide some background on their stories, and it’s worth checking out these back pages for some nuggets on each work’s genesis.
The guest editor—the right-leaning Mark Helprin—introduces the collection with an in-depth and intellectual essay that rails against minimalism, left-wing politics, writing programs, and the surge of women writers and ethnic literature. In terms of the latter two, he argues these forms of writing have taken over English literature college classes in the U.S., deemphasizing Shakespeare and many other authors Helprin holds close to his heart. Although well argued, his essay is misguided and reactionary on so many points, it would take an equally long rebuttal (his introduction “The Canon Under Siege” is 8,500 words!) to defuse many of his conjectures.
The questions Helprin raises about the minimalist aesthetic are interesting and are worth noting here:
Why are so any minimalist stories about despicable people in filthy unkempt garden apartments filled with ugly bric-a-brac, where everybody smokes, drinks, stays up all night, and is addicted to coffee? Why are the characters almost uniformly pudgy, stiff, and out-of-shape, even if they are in their twenties? Why do they watch so much about television? Why do they have so many headaches? Why are they impotent, frigid, promiscuous, or all three combined?
He continues asking questions for another half a page. For me, some of these observations are indeed facets of the genre, this “Dirty Realism,” which in the following years went out of vogue. Although these scenarios appear infrequently in contemporary literature, they occasionally reemerge in similar or sometimes innovative forms (see some of my stories! or Carve magazine, for example), they are for the most part relegated to a few names: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and others, and a period: the late 1970s to the 1980s. The editor of Granta, Bill Buford, coined the term in a 1983 issue of the magazine.
Tobais Wolff’s “Smorgasboard” and Ralph Lombreglia’s “Inn Essence.”
A quick post on the latest volume I digested and consumed.
The Best American Short Stories 1999:
Standout stories: Ha Jin’s “In the Kindergarten,” Tim Gautreaux’s “The Piano Tuner,” and Junot Diaz’s “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.”
Overall, there were some strong pieces within this edition. Although, all things considered, I felt the chosen stories to be not quite to my liking, as they were in previous years. But anyway, I recently came across a useful table of data assembled by Bookfox that details the magazines and literary journals which receive the most re-printings and honorable mentions. Unsurprisingly, The New Yorker tops the list. If you check it out, you’ll see some surprises.
The first two posts charting my odyssey through thirty volumes of the Best American series can be found here and here. While reading another one of the books, I came across a recent survey by VIDA, an organization that deals with women in the arts. VIDA completed a statistical analysis of the gender discrepancies in each of the Best American Short Stories, Poetry, and Essays anthologies. They found over the last thirty years women accounted for 29% of the essays, and 39% of the poems. However, in terms of the short stories they discovered practical equality:
…of the stories published in the anthologies from 1978 through 2010, 47% were written by women. Of the thirty-three years of the Best American Short Stories we counted, there were sixteen years in which the number of works by women published in the anthologies were equal to or greater than the number of works by men.
Some fascinating data there. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. So onward with my latest year:
Standout stories: Geoffrey Becker’s “Black Elvis,” Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom,” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent.”
Overall, I found this edition to be lackluster, many well-written but so-so stories. Often I found myself wanting more profundity in the work, the type of insight gleaned at by the guest editor, E.L. Doctorow, in his fascinating introduction:
It was the Freudian disciple Wilhelm Reich who realized that extensive dream analysis was not necessary to uncover a patient’s psyche: anywhere you looked — in actions taken, habits of thought, tone of voice, body language — you would find the typified self. That about describes the working principle of the short story as practiced by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
Throughout his short essay, Doctorow offers his thoughts on the short story and its development and progression over the last few years. Of particular interest, he examines episodic and epiphanic narrative modes and discusses the strengths and pitfalls of Frank O’Conner’s The Lonely Voice (1963), a sweeping and yet detailed study of the short story genre. In the past, I’ve read sections of O’Conner’s book. I think it may be time to pay it another visit.
In my first post on the Best American Short Story series, I outlined my plan to read the last thirty editions. I’m reading the books for craft, the nuts-and-bolts of (short) storytelling, and to read some damn-good fiction. As I mentioned in my previous post, many of the magazines that submitted to the series are now defunct (Antaeus, Four Quarters, Kansas Quarterly, Ontario Review, TriQuarterly) for various reasons. Others, mostly university-based journals, have simply changed their names over the years. It’s interesting for me also to read writers I’d previously never discovered: Kent Nelson, Tess Gallagher, Jessica Neely. I will be checking out their collections in the years to come.
Standout stories: Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon,” Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” Ethan Canin’s “Star Food,” and Mona Simpson’s “Lawns.”
This really was a stellar year for short fiction, or perhaps the selections were more to my tastes. It’s no surprise, I suppose, the guest editor of that year was Raymond Carver — one of my major influences.