Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Short Story vs Novel: Literary Detente

Much of my life is as tied up with the short story and the novel as the profligate spender is with credit cards. As a consequence, a good deal of energy goes into deciding where to put the short stories and novels I have read, where to store the ones I have not yet read, which convenient place to store the ones loaned to me, and how to record the ones I have out on loan and to whom they are thus loaned.

Equally time consuming is the fork in the road about my absolute favorite medium, the novel or the short story, which of the two I most enjoy writing, and which of the two I enjoy teaching. On any given day, I can be of either mind since both are glorious mediums, intimate splashes of life tossed at a freshly painted wall or a not-so-fresh surface.

The contest didn't used to be so close; as much as I loved short stories, I did not think I could write them because of my belief that in order to do so, one had to know how to plot. From time to time my interests left the equivalent of early autumn zucchini on my doorstep, which is to say what I considered short stories then--mostly concept- or gimmick-driven narratives--landed in my psyche like paramilitary parachutists dropped behind enemy lines. Novels were more my medium because in the novel format I could hide the fact that plot lines were a mystery to me.

Somewhere within the tortured and hallucinatory landscape of my immune system having played a year-long practical joke on me, leaving me more or less allergic to myself, I forged a sense of what the short story was and how I related to it. Well on the road to recovery, I was invited to dinner by Dennis and Gail Lynds and seated propitiously next to John Milton, the editor of The South Dakota Review. John and I liked the same kind of wine, had second helpings of the roast, and seemed to forge a sense of literary respect over the cheese-and-fruit platter. "Send me something," John said.

Three relatively sleepless weeks later, I did, naming the story after my then splendid dog companion, Molly, using the philosophy I'd forged in my illness, and crafting a narrative in which one of my favorite characters contrives to steal his best friend's dog, disguise her, and raise her as his own. A week later I received one of those small envelopes from The South Dakota Review I had come to associate with acceptance notes. In short order, using the same philosophy--as opposed to formula--I had crafted a story about an academic--a Hawthorne scholar-- who receives anonymous threats from an enemy in his faculty mail box. Another small envelope from John Milton. And yet another story, about a man in a senior citizen's writing group who is wildly attracted to a middle-aged woman in his class, doing his best to impress her.

This time, the note in the small envelope from John Milton said, "I guess you're one of my regulars now." To me that meant I could count on placing a story a year in SDR, one of the bright lights in the world of the literary journal world.

My short story output flourished and I was convinced this was the most delicious medium of all, a landscape I'd never thought it possible to inhabit. Life was officially splendid. Until.

John Milton died suddenly, unexpectedly, and with the exception of one seemingly outrageous story about a discovery I'd made about the university where I teach--in a tribute-to-John issue--I've not managed to crack the SDR again, and had to seek my fortunes elsewhere.

Those years have brought me to long-term reading and s
ubmission relationships with dozens of literary journals as well as the editorship of one. From time to time I discover a poet or essayist whose work moves me, but the driving force behind my reading is the short story. When the latest issue of The Georgia Review arrived, I fell on it because the cover promised a feature, written by a poet I much admire, that takes me back to the paperback original science fiction adventure stories.

What I realized only last night, just at bed time, was the presence among the short stories of "A Great Piece of Elephant" by Lee K. Abbott, a remarkable stylist who writes as though using a hot-wired computer, his insights, characters, and locales charged with mystical inevitability and glandular honesty. Abbott's characters careen about with the guilt of The Scarlet Letter, the driven inquisitiveness of Saul Bellow, and the humanity of Walker Percy, all these qualities leavened by the humor or--well, of Lee K. Abbott. In addition to it being gorgeously funny and ironic, of a piece with Jim Harrison's "Republican Wives,""A Great Piece of Elephant" is told from three differing points of view, a no-no in short story for anyone but Lee K. Abbott.

The Georgia Review also contains "Next Stop Abbottland: The Stories of Lee K. Abbott," which pays some loving regard to All Things, All at Once, his most recent collection. Herewith, my review of ATAaO.

Abbott teaches writing at the Ohio State University then reverts to the wilder, woolier parts of New Mexico, where everything seems to require the kinds of development--social and economical--that try men's souls and womens' patience. Like all fine humorists, he is a great moralist; like all fine stylists, he hears a cadence of language, of the human heart struggling to find a place, any place, with a wi-fi connection.

1 comment:

bhadd said...

Poetry takes a man who can begin anew often I think, short stories also. But books--plays no but novels--are like endless universes.

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