The problem with short stories

Josh Spilker

Cormac Yelps / RaceTrackBlog

Just read some of Adam Ross' 2011 short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen. It got me thinking about short stories in general. I'm not really a short story person. I've mostly thought of short stories as failed novels. There's no reason why I've thought this, I've just never preferred them. That's actually a really unfair opinion on my part, maybe I just need to come back around to reluctant admiration; because let's be honest — I can't write a short story.

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I'm not saying I can write a fantastic novel (but I sure tried), but I've always had a particular hard time at short stories. I guess, because I've never understood the form. What is it trying to accomplish? And if they're so great, why don't people buy them and appreciate them instead of just complaining about how no one buys them?

I once had some hope for the short story. You know in our Twitter/Tumblr/Blog culture that all short stories would be repurposed for them. And I still think that's possible, but the main issue has been that the short story has been slow to adopt to this form.

Instead, journalism has fed more into the form. So have listicles. So have punchy and catchy and gimmicky headlines. And so short story writers don't know what to do with that. They're used to taking pages, with winding sentences and characters that do. Instead the internet is all about two things — explaining and opining.

Instead of tight characters forced to make an immediate choice in short stories with a surprise twist, we need the twist to come earlier. That's why fiction on the Internet should be all about the form. It'll jar us and shock us or make us laugh. The forms that subvert work the best.

Here's what I mean. Earlier this year, I did an interview with Brian Oliu. Brian is writer in Alabama and he's all about poking into the forms that modern culture delivers. He's got a big set on video games coming up. His most recent collection were character pieces that he wrote in the form of Craigslist missed connections.

I completely enjoyed his character descriptions. He dove deeper than any Craigslist missed connection, but used the central idea of that medium to then add his own creativity. It subverted the form while making the best use of it.

There is one part I was disappointed in. I really wanted these to appear in the book as they did originally on Craigslist. I wanted the sparse Craigslist form. I wanted that simple type with all the crazy date info and the list of cities on the side. I didn't get a hard copy of Brian's book (So You Know It's Me, Tiny Hardcore Press), but I did read the EPUB and PDF. I'm assuming that the physical book was laid out similarly to this, but I think it would have been more effective to include those Craigslist layouts.

Instead I had to imagine the Craigslist form (ack…the written word), when the stories were meant and written to be viewed on Craigslist. In actuality, the format of the book in not preserving this form may have lost an essential voice to the story, the voice of Craigslist itself. Because if Steve Jobs taught us anything, form speaks to us (INSERT CLICHE MARSHALL MCLUHAN QUOTE HERE).

Why am I saying this and why am I saying it now? Because I don't read short stories on the Internet. But I do read a ton of blog posts. I do read all kinds of music reviews. I read all kinds of 'the oral history of this and that' and I read all kinds of anything with subheadings.

And so in addition to Brian's book on Craigslist (so sad I missed that), I'm all about Yelping with Cormac. People love Yelp, apparently. Yeah, it's a potential Tumblr meme goldmine. Good job to that girl or guy or to Cormac himself. But put these up on Yelp and make the world interact with it. Take some screen shots and follow the comments. Let's see what the world does, they may even read more fiction. They may even find out that Cormac McCarthy writes books and doesn't just consults on bloody movies. What a revelation.

I also have a keen eye on a new project from Jay Gabler (best known from The Tangential). His new project is called Unreality House, with a premise that four writers have moved into a house on a fellowship. I've read a few of the pieces and the thing I'm waiting for is some action, but Gabler is really conducting a novel through a short story cycle with that one. I think it's a good premise. He'll need to keep the character's voices distinct, but there are some possibilities here–everything from Misery to American Horror Story to whatever Blake Butler has written lately. Or maybe it'll be something Big Brother/Suite Life of Zack and Cody-esque. I don't know. I'll have to read to find out. But it's already better than just seeing a bunch of words strung across the page. The format has life, people know the format and turn to their computer for it.

That's the difference. People are turning to their computers more than they are turning to books, but our collective short stories have been loathe to make that change in the way stories are structured. The Yelp review is our sonnet. The Craigslist ad is our lament. Rotten Tomatoes is our argumentative form. Foursquare is our journey story. And Facebook is our dramatic one act.

Let's flip these into fiction.

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