Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The O. Henry Isopod

Jeremy has an interesting post up on short stories v novels in the no-holes-barred cage match that is the 21st Century, which is cute, because we all know that LOLCATS are the literature of the future and that our grandchildren will be unintelligible cyborg-drones who work for the Apple hive-mind and view us as we view chimps.

OMG! Gmpa ws txtng! Luvs bnanas!*

My favorite part of the post is that he links his usage of 'whatevs' to its urban dictionary definition, wherein we learn that this shortening of 'whatever' is used by cool people-- in case we doubted his coolness, or just to rub it in our faces.

But back to the meat of the post. He ruminates on how difficult it is to write short stories and gives a couple solid strategies for applying 'pressure' to the a story. The underlying notion being that the possibilities of 'success' for a short story are much fewer than for novels... Thus making the genre super-hard, but therefore also specially rewarding, like a 'punch in the face.' The reason short stories lose out to novels in this pre-borgian era is due to this excess of pressure, when want we want is mindless escapism that reinforces our most destructive and least examined cultural assumptions.

But why so serious, Short Story? Jeremy suggests that novels can do more, be more, have larger digressions, like Vic Hugo stopping the narrative of Les Mis to tell us about Parisian criminal argot or retell the Battle of Waterloo, therefore making it a broader and freer medium.

But I like to think of literature in more physical terms, of the generating force of chaos crystallizing into forms according to outside pressures. Think, for instance, of the dizzying variety of life in the insect world vs mammals. Mammals are more complex systems, and therefore, in order to function, must share very basic and unavoidable solutions to the problems of complexity. All the variations average out closer to the mean.

Clearly mammals are novels. We've got one mammal that can fly, a few that can swim, a couple on two legs, and the rest are basically fuzzy with four legs. And hooray! I am certainly on Team Mammal.

But insects, being less complex (but sufficiently complex-- there are only a few solutions to very basic uni-cellular problems), are able to do and be so much more. Therefore, it would seem to me that the short story, having the freedom of prose and the brevity of poetry, could and should and has combined those forces into dazzling variety. But why don't we understand and reinforce this natural creative force? Why do most thinkers of the short story instead make it out to be the most strictly ordered of all media?

I have many theories for this, for instance, that an ordered society fears autonomous forms and therefore applies the most artificial pressure to that which contains the most potential for variety-- like love, for instance. One man and one woman for life, eh?

The literary extension of State Control is Realism and this is the particular fetter of the (literary) short story in the past hundred-so years. If a short story is only comment on a narrow idea of the real, then it's grand, efficacious potential is severely limited and must be very hard indeed to pull off. And thus we are trained to see the narrowness of our vision as an appreciation for the teleology of 'what works.'

Defenestrate Realism like the Old Tyrant it is, and suddenly there is an explosion of Forms. You'll realize that most of our native story-telling is within the realm of the short story-- the rant, the love letter, a joke, the rituals and habits that anchor your days, flights of fancy, your relationship to your father. These all live within us according to the native diversity that the short story is perfect to contain while reinforcing the singularity its material. Death's Head Moth to Fire Ant to the Giant Isopod .

And as this form betrays most naturally the illusion of the Grand Narrative that we all live by, it must be the most misunderstood, ignored, and restrained of all literary gestures.

Which is why no one reads Saroyan anymore.

*Sent Via My Blackberry Neural-Cortex Implant


Hale True Benson Squire said...

A) I'm glad I wasn't stoned when I read this.
B) Defenestrating Realism is a great idea, but there are doing to have to be some nimble-assed readers on the sidewalk below to know what to make of the shitsplash that results.

Who's teaching them?

Who knows, in other words, what to do with the things that don't hew to the conventions we've all learned to arbitrate our reading by? Mayhaps it's already out there, and just not being seen?

C) You keep writing tight shit like this and you're going to get a following.

Whim said...

A) How do you always know which posts I'm anxious about and then praise them? I am glad you found it worthwhile, even straight.

B)Who's teaching them? I have no idea. I've really never been initiated into that scene.

C) There is no way in hell I am getting a following. My 'followers' don't even read this.

Jeremy Russell said...

Ha! Great post.

I love the metaphor of novels as mammals, short stories as insects -- especially with the caveat that insects are no less wonderful to watch (at least late at night on Animal Planet)!

This suggests that novels are more complex, more evolved, than short stories, but at the same time insects have been here longer and are more likely to survive. (And, also that poems are single-celled organisms, blogs are in the Kingdom Fungi and LOLcats are a pathogenic virus).

But I'm not sure that I totally agree that short stories are a category that includes all short prose, from jokes to rants. Some jokes and some rants are short stories and some are essays or articles, or anecdotes or any of a number of other types of short prose. And sometimes a joke is it's own genre (e.g., "knock knock").

I guess my logic goes like this: Some short stories are rants, but not all rants are short stories. (And I cite both our blog entries about short stories as evidence.)

As for Realism, consider it defenestrated. And good riddance! But I still think it's interesting that novels have more followers than short stories (defined in the admittedly more limited way that I have above)? mightn't it be more than just groupthink by our Literary Overlords?

Whim said...

I agree with your logic about not all short prose being short stories. I see that I was unclear there-- I think they can all be contained in and emphasized by short stories, or function in a similar way, which is to create one singular impression.

I think another set of reasons why more people read novels than short stories today is technological (television replacing magazines for our after work story-telling of choice) and branding. A novel is just one story, just one thing, and therefore easier to sell. If a writer writes enough novels that sell, then their name becomes a brand.

Check out the new book by that Life of Pi guy:

It's almost standard to make the author's name (brand) bigger than the title. This used to bother me but doesn't much anymore. But this is the first time (I have seen) the title of the previous book just as large as the title of the new book.

I agree with your other classifications too-- except I think poetry is snakes.