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October 02, 2007

Poetry, Fiction, Length, More

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This piece by the NYTimes' Corey Kilgannon about Frank Messina, a Mets fan who writes poems about his team and about his feelings about them, is a sweetheart: amusing and touching -- "appreciative" in the best sense of the word.

It also triggered off an email back-and-forth between FvBlowhard and me that, for better or worse, I'm copying-and-pasting into this blog posting. Hey, 2Blowhards started as an extension of the email exchanges FvBlowhard and I were already having. Every now and then we have to reconnect with our gabby-arts-buddies roots.

FvBlowhard: The problem with modern poetry is that guys like the guy in this story are treated as laughable.

He, not the poetry establishment, is the one in touch with the spirit of Homer.

He may not be all that good as poet, granted, but that's really beside the point; he is marginalized not for how he does poetry but for the purpose he is putting it to.

MBlowhard: That's a great article, tks. Nice catch by the reporter. And gotta love people who really do what they do for the love of it.

My own current rant has to do with length. The Wife is back to working on another novel. She's really determined to be a pro and to make money doing it, and good for her.

Me, I had a mini-crisis the other day. I have a short novel all sketched out, a good first draft of it down on paper, etc. And I was having hard time facing the next stage -- moving from "rehearsals are going well" to "let's get this baby up on its feet." The Wife looked at me, read my mood, and said, "Novel-writing's a job. You've got a fulltime job already. Why not let yourself do manageable projects instead, at least until you retire?"

She was right. I set the novel aside and the gloom lifted.

Anyway, my thesis about length and scale boils down to a few points. 1) Novels are the limit of what humans can do. 2) Doing anything on that scale isn't going to be fun-fun. Some exceptions allowed for, few novels have been written on a pure breeze of inspiration. Most have, to some extent, been ground out. 3) Most stories don't need to be more than 5-50 pages long.

All of which means that most people who write novels are weirdos (because who else would inflict such a lot of loneliness and delayed-gratification on themselves?), and that most novels have a lot of padding in them. Exceptions (the work of professional writer-entertainers especially) allowed for, of course.

Given all this, why on earth do readers expect or even want novels? And why on Earth would anyone -- or anyone from a normal range of emotion, drive, ability -- want to write them? I mean, really, compare a novel to a movie. A movie gives you a complete story, the energies and personalities of tons of people who are pitching in, many different kinds of sensory stimuli, and it's over in 90 minutes. Meanwhile, for the reader, a novel isolates you with just one mind and voice, it's all a matter of ink on the page, and it usually takes maybe 10-15 hours to finish. That's an awful lot of time to spend in the company of a stranger.

Even from the point of view of the creators: At least a life in showbiz can have some amazing payoffs in terms of ego, money, blowjobs. What with fame, beauty, stardom, drugs, and the possibility of immense amount of dough, it makes some kind of sense for a certain kind of person to pitch-in heart and mind. Novel-writing, though ... Given that writing a novel is an unrewarding slog (few blowjobs, lots of loneliness, the publishing industry itself a pain in the ass), why would anyone volunteer to write one?

Which leads me to wonder: Why don't more readers demand more short fiction? Good short fiction can be a real high. A piece of short fiction really can be pure inspiration. And why don't more writers apply themselves more whole-heartedly to the creation of short fiction? Wouldn't everyone be happier?

My theory is that we've been brainwashed by the English-Lit and publishing-industry axis into thinking of "the novel" as somehow intrinsically important. Which of course it isn't. I mean, it's really nice that there are some people out there who write good novels. I'm nothing if not a fan. But as a general culture-question, why elevate novel-writing onto such a pedestal?

BTW, practically speaking, I've run into a lot of fiction writers who will freely confess that what they'd really love to do is skip the novels and write short fiction instead. But there's no way to get 'em published, or to make money from them, or to develop a reputation doing so. So back they go to their novels, furiously pumping up their egos and padding out their prose to get through the onerous chore ...

Anyway, all that said, off I happily went to work on a short piece of fiction. Polished it off in a week too. Some chore-like energy and behavior was demanded, but mostly it was a hoot and a high. Fun!

FvBlowhard: I was thinking about this very issue the other day, after seeing a bunch of TV interviews and book review articles that suggested multi-year or even multi-decade gestations for various novels. "Wowee," I thought, "who could stand to chew on the same bite of food for that long? What an ordeal that must have been." Then I picked up the L.A. Times book review section and read this quote from "Exit Ghost" by Philip Roth:

"For some very, very few that amplification [of fiction], evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most."

I thought, bingo. The hard-core book-reading public, to a large extent, and in some lesser measure, all of us, consider our fantasy life, our what-if life, to be our essential (rather than accidental) life. Art is the real reality, the one "whose meaning comes to matter most" and ordinary reality is something lesser, messier, fuzzier, and less satisfying. It's probably rarely fully stated this way, and would cause many of us to draw back from its Gnostic implications, but I believe this hidden belief answers a profound emotional desire for many of us. After all, it provides a way -- probably the only way many of us have found -- of dealing with our deep-rooted urge to find meaning.

While I'm sure that Philip Roth has enjoyed the perks of fame from his writing, I suspect he has pursued his authorial career primarily because has a bad case of this religion of art-as-Gnostic metaphysics. His disease is made more profound by the fact that as an author, he also gets to be God, and wave the baton.

If this is true, I think it explains the buying public's perceived need for volume and labor, the preference for the novel over the short story. After all, if a book is in the service of the true religion, if we as priests want our readers to see their metaphysical selves and lead their metaphysical lives in our pages, we can't be a bunch of slackers, no? We need to work hard, to suffer, to sweat, to go beyond ourselves, to sacrifice ourselves to this metaphysical creation. It's the American way: we buy and sell by the pound.

While this is all quite understandable, I also think it might be mistaken. While in many ways I am as big a worshipper at the religion of fantasy as any, these days -- because of advancing age, increasing responsibilities and diminishing time, perhaps -- I find short stories to just work better than long stories.

If I want to mull over the metaphysics of life, I pick up a book of I.B.Singer short stories. They immediately let me engage with life as a riddle that is loaded with meaning but that you can only partially puzzle out, probably because you're still too close to it -- and they do it pretty much perfectly in 20 minutes or so.

Longer pieces really don't interest me as much. While the Divine Comedy is a very major work, I would frankly prefer it broken up into small doses. The work that Dante has to go to in order to bring the whole lumbering mass into some kind of order is an intellectual marvel, but for me it lacks much payoff in terms of the religion of artistic metaphysics. I'd rather delight in the lean tightness of a well structured sitcom with rhyming A and B stories than in the mighty sinews of his Aquinian philosophy. While you have to salute Dante for making the links between fiction and religion so explicit, it's an accomplishment that I acknowledge intellectually rather than really least at this stage of my life.

MBlowhard: Those who treat art as a religion ... sigh. The whole gods (artists) and priests (critics, academics) and wannabes (creative-writing / art-school victims) and worshippers (readers) scene ... It does seem to create an awful lot of misery for the sake of rather little in the way of aesthetic payoff, doesn't it?

A final musing: One effect the digital revolution is having is that it's giving us ways to let material find its own length. No longer does a piece of nonfiction writing have to be either magazine-article-length or book-length. Instead it can be whatever length it needs or wants to be. Part of the fun of exploring YouTube is waking up to the fact that one or four-minute-long pieces of audiovisual-through-time material can provide a lot in the way of delight and entertainment.

So here's the question: Why aren't we witnessing a renaissance of short prose fiction? Is there something in the nature of reading-on-screen that's at war with the kind of imaginative leaps we need to make when we read fiction?

Incidentally, I'm aware of the existence of online slash fiction, and of the online erotica-writing world. As far as I can tell, though, these fields have little appeal to people who are mere readers, who aren't themselves participants as well as readers. But maybe that's an interesting development in its own right. Maybe the online prose-fiction-thang is developing into a more participatory thang than the on-paper fiction thang has traditionally been ...



UPDATE: Robert Nagle writes a smart and informative piece about Japanese "Keitai" novels -- fiction written to be read on cellphone screens. Robert follows the e-publishing scene much more closely than I do.

posted by Michael at October 2, 2007


I think the short story---short fiction---is parcelled out and consumed by many of us in exactly the form you have discussed---half-hour sitcoms, or occasionally hour-long (have you watched "Boston Legal"?) drama/comedies, or in short You Tube films. I would argue that feature-length films are short fiction compared to novels---think about all the cutting that has to be done to full-length novels to make them "fit" in even 90-120 minutes on the screen. It's why people are often disappointed in the movie if they loved the book. With all the dimension that the new technology can at least theoretically provide, maybe paper-bound fiction is actually become a rarer bird and rarer taste. I think it might have become so sooner if the technology had been there sooner---I mean, I don't know that eighteenth century people were more intrinsically into reading long books---they just had no choice. It's why people (including me) most often read books on airplanes---no other choice, often.

Posted by: annette on October 2, 2007 1:57 PM

Yes, I've been thinking along the same lines recently.

The problem is that publishing doesn't know how to sell bite-sized fiction.

(the exception seems to be japanese keitai fiction, which I wrote about before).

The novel is a long and distinguished genre, defended most recently by Jane Smiley in her incredible book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

The novel will stay relevant and important. I just don't think it's practical to write them anymore.

But "blogging, etc." does seem a way to establish an ongoing relationship with the reader.

Speaking of which, why not put a &&#$&# to your novel somewhere on your home page?

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 2, 2007 1:58 PM

Isn't it mainly the buyers of fiction who want length, length and more length, figuring they're getting more for their money?

Posted by: Peter on October 2, 2007 2:24 PM

Short stories are to novels as:

...a 9x9 go board is to a 19x19 one. exciting conversation with a stranger is to a relationship. exquisite dessert is to a seven-course dinner.
...highlights from a basketball game are to the game.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on October 2, 2007 2:52 PM

Annette -- I think all that's smart and right. And it raises another question: What's likely to become of prose fiction as devices like iPhone become more widespread? Why not watch a movie or a TV episode on the plane instead of reading that book?

Robert -- That's a good piece, thanks. As for our novel, tks for the interest, and happy to email you a link. Full disclosure: it's a trash novel written in two months. (Which was what we were paid to do.) We think we did a good job of it - but, y'know, it's a trash novel that was written in two months. Harold Bloom isn't going to be wasting a lot of time on it. The piece we're actually much prouder of is a series of linked stories that we conceived of semi-kinda as radio plays and presented to live audiences with actors doing the reading. That's a novel-length collection, and it's much more far-out and satirical as the novel. We wrestled with the kinds of questions Annette and you raise, namely, what are we selling that people can't get better from TV or movies? Our answer: sex and satire. We're actually thinking of bypassing book publishing with the collection -- we may go straight to audiobook with it. Give all those commuters a thrill. I'll keep you posted!

Peter -- Yeah, Americans seem to feel strongly that they need or deserve lots of value for their money, which means thick books at a discount. Getting more out of less doesn't seem to be our motto, does it?

JA -- True. But of course in the time it takes me to finish a novel I might finish 10 pieces of short fiction. So shouldn't the comparison be between the experience of reading one novel and the experience of reading ten short stories?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 2, 2007 3:34 PM

To live is not enough for them, they have to talk about it.
--Sam Beckett

Isn't that the disease that afflicts those who make literature? To the benefit of the rest of us, I might add.

Yo annette! Glad to see your comment. I was beginning to despair about the lack of ladies here.

Posted by: ricpic on October 2, 2007 4:38 PM

I'm not enough of a lady to help out ricpic, and I'll prove it by saying that you folk are part of a particular little circle of people with same references (Philip Roth, indeed!) and the same educations and the same bicoastal networks and etc. You are talking about only one kind of writing -- not even the genre writing that Michael claims to defend. I'm just now coming to the end of The Raj Quartet, a long, historical, complicated tale that I hate to see end. It's much less fantasy than some people would like. Quite relevant to current events, in fact. And so thick with meaning and emotion that sometimes I have to put it down for a few minutes.

The novels on my shelves include several yards of Native American novels which I daresay most of this list has never heard of, much less read. They are a door into a world that I happen to know in part, but never completely enough. One has to search all over to find them.

You are far too much hitched to the publishing industry, the promotion industry, the review industry -- those are what are fainting and failing, not novels as a discipline.

That said, I think that the idea of stories to hear rather than books to read is growing all the time and very meaningful. We used to call it "radio."

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 2, 2007 8:39 PM

Poems are to novels as:

...a week-long fling in Paris is to a career as a prostitute.
...a stroll in the park is to being dropped somewhere in the Amazon to find your way home.
...a hint of good perfume is to walking through Bath & Body Works.
...a baseball game is to a baseball season.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 2, 2007 8:50 PM

It seems to me that more and more people are getting into TV shows as opposed to movies. And, if you'll allow the comparison, movies are more like short stories and a TV series is more like a novel. I think people who enjoy fiction of any kind want to have the same thing you get in a good novel or a good series--an involving story with characters that move you. But, unlike short stories or movies, a show or a novel can provide more depth. And after all you read a novel in bits (usually), just like you would watch a series.

Posted by: Daniel on October 2, 2007 10:22 PM

Short stories tend to be depressing. The main character reaches an epiphany, which is usually something along the line of realizing that his dreams will never come true. The End.

Long novels are seldom depressing because the characters just keep going on and on, living life. All their dreams are shattered on p. 200, but on p. 400 they're on to something else.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 3, 2007 1:35 AM

There's something, to me, about how long a novel takes to read that is a good thing. It's related to what Frederick talks about -- the "alternate life" offered by novels. A good novel can take me weeks to read, as I usually only manage to carve out a little time before bed for reading. While I'm in the midst of that, those weeks of reading a good book, there is always that place waiting for me at the end of the day; it makes the drudgery just a little easier to deal with.

While I agree that reading short fiction is an underrated pleasure, there's no getting lost in it. The worlds of short fiction are hanging, unresolved, in your head from day to day the way the worlds of novels are.

Both have their place.

Posted by: i, squub on October 3, 2007 10:03 AM

Ricpic -- That's a funny quote, tks. But, hmm. ... Well, don't we *all* both live life and talk about it? Maybe writers just make a bigger deal of the fact than most people do.

P. Mary -- I should really get around to the Raj Quartet ... Anyway, it's great that the web has opened the culture-discussion up so much, don't you think? Inside-the-Beltway and outside as well can now speak up. But what's the effect likely to be on tastes and habits, let alone on fiction?

J. Goard -- Great series of comparisons. Almost a poem in its own right.

Daniel -- Lots of smart points, tks. I'll take issue with you only on one small point: I think it's quite possible to love fiction and fiction experiences without automatically loving (let alone craving) hyper-extended ones. In my own case, I find the love of hyper-extended fiction experiences so foreign that I'm more or less completely bewildered by it. I mean, I recognize that some people love having fictional characters and situations in their lives for long periods -- that's interesting. But I don't temperamentally share the appetite, and to such an extent that it seems weird to me, like having a taste for chicken feet or something. I tend to feel like "I get the point," and then want to turn to something else. Tastes and appetities vary in interesting ways ...

Steve -- That's a funny description that rings very true. I'd add that it may have more to do with the realities of contempo publishing than with what novels and short fiction can be. The contempo "short story" is generally a wimpy, over-refined thing that has little or no narrative interest. That's why I try to make a distinction between short fiction and short stories. Screw the contempo "short story," at least generally. But "fiction that's shorter than most novels"? Bring it on.

I, Squub -- Always great to see Annette and you dropping by. Yeah, that's a good description of the pleasure of sinking into a long-form fictional reading-experience, and the way that real time and fictional time can blend can be interesting too. It's funny: I used to have more of a taste for that than I do now, though it was never overwhelming. I wonder if age has something to do with the change. Shorter attention span, less energy, less passion for fiction generally? Or maybe (from the good side) more of a feeling that I get the point faster, and discern the flavor-experiences more directly, and so don't need the repeated exposure ... Or maybe all the above ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 3, 2007 10:24 AM

I'm often here reading though rarely responding. At any rate -- I was thinking the same thing about age and changing tastes in novel reading. I'm actually not currently in one of those novel-worlds, and haven't been for while. Happens less and less often now, actually. As I've aged I find myself spending more time on non-fiction, less on fiction. The difference, maybe, is that I really miss that place. I keep thinking how I need to get a good novel and get lost in it, but when it comes time to do it, I usually find that there's something less escapist that I "ought" to be reading.

Posted by: i, squub on October 3, 2007 10:36 AM

Hard to find good short stories that aren't terribly literary and come across as Steve Sailer describes. Science fiction shorts from the Golden Age of that genre and even today are the ones I look to, mostly. Collections of short stories are a bit harder to find, but Baen is publishing some classic (mostly single author) collections and, usually, a couple of others every year.

Posted by: mdmnm on October 3, 2007 12:33 PM

I'm just finishing up a huge compendium of English detective fiction short stories, and find that although many of the stories have been delightful, I'm ready to be done with it, and get back to some novel-reading.

In other words, I'm just the opposite of you, Michael -- I find it takes me lots more energy getting started on a work of fiction, i.e. sussing out the characters, the setting, the conflict, etc. I enjoy this process of exploration and discovery, but I also like the 'inhabiting' that i,squub so eloquently described. And I find this 'residence' in a fictional world much more relaxing. I've always enjoyed this 'getting lost', but I've also noticed that many smart, literary people really don't, or are indifferent to it at best. I guess it's a temperamental thing.

Posted by: mr tall on October 3, 2007 10:10 PM


Interesting comment. Interesting also how many people are assuming that most of us seek out art in a complementary way (filling niches) in terms of length, complexity, or whatever, rather than seek out parallel kinds of art based upon our idiosyncrasies. As for my case: I disprefer serial TV dramas in about the same way as novels. There has generally got to be some other level of appeal for me, usually at the micro-level of great dialogue or an original sense of humor. Good movies, like good poems, are meant to be appreciated as finished wholes: returned to, lingered over, known so well that their flaws stand out but become part of their beauty. Even when TV works approach this, I don't think audiences tend to get them in that way.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 3, 2007 11:07 PM

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