American Short Story Writers Are Taught To Do It Wrong


John Barry has a piece up at The Baltimore City Paper in which he argues that too many American short story writers are taught to try to mimic that famous last paragraph in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” And this just might be why no one reads short stories anymore.

In that paragraph, Gabriel Conroy muses poetically about his wife’s dead ex-love while he looks at falling snow. It would be hard to argue that it’s not a beautiful scene. But focusing so much on trying to recreate that sort of writing, he says, can ruin many a short story, and it misses a lot of what can be learned from “The Dead” in the first place.

“What we come out with now, too often, is an architectural feat, carefully layered to texture a feeling that is, not coincidentally, the sort of feeling you might get after teaching short-stories for years, while writing the occasional book review. It’s the kind of story not many people read anymore, unless they want to learn how to write a story. It’s a story that many people publish, some of them so that they can keep their jobs.”

This, he argues, is part of the reason why people won’t pick up a short story anymore. “People don’t read it for pleasure,” he says, and they don’t read it to figure out where we are or who we’ve become,” reasons that people picked up “The Dead” in the first place. Instead, he says, he turns to CNN when he “want(s) a story that pisses me off or causes me to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.”

His prescription is to embrace “the weirdness” that surrounds us, “not what we feel when we wish we could have been something else.” I couldn’t agree more. But I’d say writers who want to do so are facing awfully steep hurdles. With so many lit mags (and I don’t mean all, by any means) looking for “architectual feat(s),” I’m afraid that many short story writers will continue to have to play to the market that gets them the teaching jobs that put food on their tables.

That said, I think that a lot of what he’s calling for is already happening. It’s my hope that the explosion of literary web sites is breaking down some of the barriers to writing stories that matter, in spite of and because of the fact that online publications are still battling to be accepted in academic circles. (via <HTMLGIANT>)

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →