Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Where have you gone, Guy de Maupassant?

Recognize this guy? His name is Samuel Clemens, but you probably know him better as Mark Twain. A writer and humorist, Twain is well-known for creating novels about Tom Sawyer and his buddy Huckleberry Finn. It's less well known that he wrote short stories. Some estimates say nearly 50 of them.

Is this important? For the purposes of this blog, yes.  Read on and see why.

In the course of my writing career, I've had my share of rejections. One which hurt a lot involved a series of short stories - turned down with the comment that "short stories don't sell well". While reminiscing about that event from a while ago, I recently got into a discussion on short stories with several readers and writers. I was surprised to hear the same song. Short stories? Nah. They're not much use to anyone. Who wants to read something anyone can knock out in ten minutes?

Jeez, guys. I'm about to point out how freakin' WRONG that is, in every way!!!

Try explaining that viewpoint to Stephen King. He's written 35 of 'em...Stand By Me being the most notable! I ventured the opinion that WRITING a short story is an art, and went on to point out that when an author elects to pen a short tale, they have to squeeze every ounce of meaning out of each word and ditch the unnecessary ones. Washington Irving could do it...see Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Did those little gems suck? Er, I think not! Of course Guy de Maupassant is one of the most classically acknowledged talents in this unique category. The man was a master at using few words to express many ideas. But not many read him these days, sadly. Especially not in his native French. He's tucked up on the dusty shelves with Flaubert and the Dumas boys, but if you have chance, try one or two of 'em. English is okay. LOL.

Today of course, we're more savvy. We read...hmm... Isaac Asimov!!! Oh wait! There's a little story called "I, Robot" and it's a - dare I say it - SHORT story!!! In fact, he wrote 19 short story collections. And you science fiction fans are probably also familiar with a chap named Ray Bradbury. As luck would have it, this prolific genius has over 400 short stories and novellas to his credit.

Need I go on? No, probably not, but I'm going to anyway, because this is something I'm passionate about.  Let's see... might recognize J.D. Salinger's name. Many consider him one of the 20th century's greatest writers. Should I mention that he has three short story collections and a couple of dozen separate ones?  O'Henry is another author you probably know - in fact, there's even a short story award named after him. Most of us have run across John Updike at one time or another, and he published over 150 short stories in his lifetime.  F. Scott Fitzgerald? Yep. Dozens of those little jewels.

And that brings us to the granddaddy of 'em all - arguably the most famous short story writer of all time. A troubled lad by the name of Edgar Allen Poe. He only wrote ONE complete novel in his lifetime and if you know the title you're smarter than I am because I'd never heard of it. I HAD heard of The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death - some of his most famous works, each short and demonstrating perfection in paragraph form. He wrote over 65 of them and they still have the power to terrify.

Interesting stuff, huh? I will confess I was astonished when I looked into this topic and found the range of writers who had begun or flourished within the short story environment. Talented, creative and imaginative, these are some of the best wordsmiths we know - and yet apparently "short stories don't sell".

Hah. That, in the words of me...crappy wordsmith that I am... is utter bullshit. A good short story is a small work of art, every bit as inventive and challenging to produce as a 100,000 word opus. Even more difficult, some may say, since it takes extraordinary vision to condense a tale into its smallest possible enclosure. I decry the prevailing attitude on the part of publishers (both print and electronic) toward the tiny tale. C'mon guys. Get your s**t together and learn to appreciate all forms of literature. Not all of us want to read War and Peace-length books, let alone write 'em. Give these writers a chance to shine and let them prove you wrong with their success. I know I'll be at the head of the line, downloading them, buying the collections and enjoying every perfect word. Rock on, short story writers. If it's not here yet, your time is on the way!!!


Andrew Cleese and Ms Lyon - a cautionary tale about wizards, fairies and okra
     Available now at Amazon and Smashwords


Sahara Kelly said...

I think this might now allow me to leave a comment? Sheesh. There's no button that says "Click HERE if your blog won't take comments".


Amanda McIntyre said...

I really enjoyed this topic, mainly as I am a great lover of the short story-Poe in particular. And one of my all time fav Bradbury story "I Sing The Body Electric" was made into an obscure little holiday after school special called, "The Electric Grandmother"--

For me its the same as poetry, these "gems" as you so eloquently called them. Glimmering little insights to human emotion, character, concise storytelling--not intended to fall into specific industry guidelines-indeed I think they defy them--but storytelling in its purest form, to entertain, maybe get you to think.
I've heard it said that it takes much greater skill to write a short story than to write a full novel. I suppose that remains an ongoing debate depending on the reader.
Interesting topic. I always thought of short stories as pulling back the curtain on a single moment in time..