Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dick In A Book: Just How Pussy-Whipped Is Fiction, Anyway?

It's pussy-whipped, that's what's wrong with it [the modern short story]. I speak metaphorically, and I paraphrase Mr King, but that's the gist of his argumentMichael Allen, Grumpy Old Bookman.

[Michael Allen] has no use for the hierarchical notions of “high” literary writing versus “low” genre and no doubt that there’s a phallocratic element at work. Fine art is the work of gentlemen and trash is the messy product of women. Isn’t that right?
Mary Scriver, Prairie Mary (in reference to Allen's book, The Truth About Writing).

The blogosphere remains abuzz over Stephen King's introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007. My own thoughts on his thoughts were hued with drowsy amusement, but with all this talk of pussies and phalluses, I inevitably became aroused and now feel compelled to stand up and be counted.

To Mr. King I say: so The New Yorker and Harper's are somewhat to blame, are they? I shall grant you that it's been years since I last read a short story in the pages of either mag, but blaming their editorial preferences for the declining health of the American short story is like blaming the Titanic for booking a band that only knows how to play "Nearer My God To Thee." Yes, let's by all means give a round of applause to those plucky short story types (and thank you, by the way) who write what they want as opposed to what they ought. But, to extend the metaphor beyond the breaking point, the fact is they — sorry: we — are sitting belowdecks while you stand on a lifeboat with your bullhorn, shouting “Row! Row!” As the waters rise we shall, by the grace of God, keep typing. But we're very well aware that nothing we put to paper is going to deliver us from obscurity. In that regard, we face one insurmountable obstacle, which you tiptoe around, so let me state it outright: nobody really wants to read a short story. Short story writers make a point of it, of course, but only in small doses — because NOBODY really wants to read a short story. More on this later, but for now we short story writers actually remain grateful even to the New Yorker for having the temerity to book and pay the band.

To Mr. Allen I say: God knows a little testosterone does wonders to keep me glued to the page. My favorite short story to be professionally published in the last five years is Until Gwen by Dennis Lehane. Testosterone fuels the whole thing — jail-time, murder, patricide — but is injected in measured doses to deliver a monster emotional workout. It wasn't published in The New Yorker, of course, just The Atlantic. Since then the Atlantic has gone soft and only publishes short stories once a year, most of them fitting the New Yorker's pussy-whipped template. Too bad for all of us, but I won't blame the Atlantic — at least not for the health of the American short story.

(P.S. Mr. Allen, if you've still got free copies of The Truth About Writing, might you send one my direction? I'll gladly give you one of my books in exchange. Not that you really want to read any of the stories located therein — more on this curious universal truth later.)

To Ms. Scriver I say: I will grant you that this phallocracy you suggest was the foundation of the Western World's publishing houses. I assert, however, that this order has been completely reversed in Canada (submit your off-color word for it below) and that the US is bound to follow, if it isn't there already. Our nation's publicly acknowledged "T"-writers — W.O. Mitchell, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan (who thumped Hemingway in a Parisian boxing ring, doncha know) — have all passed away, and CanLit's coveted spotlight has been studiously turned from their would-be heirs to the likes of Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant and the inescapable Alice Munroe (who, like Mr. King, claims she'll be “retiring” any day now). Those three ladies are prodigious talents, but even so it's mighty tempting to just go ahead and blame them for the declining health of the American short story, since they all remain highly-favored by the New Yorker. It could hardly be argued, though, that they write to any expectations other than their own, so let's just give them a round of applause, too.

It's not by any means a complete gender coupe — not yet, at least. Taking a quick glance at the Canadian Booksellers Association's list of Top Canadian Fiction (scroll straight to the bottom and ignore those other lists, please), the gender split still favors the men — by one. Were I the sort to be persuaded by statistics, I'd declare Canada a bastion of enlightened, progressive, fair-minded readers. Instead, I will further assert that the sales for all but one of those titles (a genre book) are chiefly attributable to female consumers (who appear to be entirely enlightened, progressive, fair-minded readers).

I could lay the blame for this shift at the feet of our publishing houses, or the cabal of literary prize-givers that for the last five years in a row has awarded the Governor General's, the Giller, and the Canada Reads awards to Miriam Toews for A Complicated Kindness. But the truth of the matter is naked for all to see: it's the internet, stupid.

There are three significant changes to the bookselling world that come to us entirely at the courtesy of the internet. (1) “Official” reviews don't matter any more. Now that we all belong to the chattering classes, bestsellerdom is achieved purely via word of mouth. (2) We buy our books from Amazon. Period. Maybe we throw a little coin to ABE, or the corner store. But in the bestseller book market, it is far and away Amazon's game, and what they stock and promote determines a great deal of what gets published. (3) The internet has effected a sea-change in cultural consciousness, which I can define with a simple question: what do you think guys with a little testosterone go to the 'net for? IF they are reading, they're doing so to bolster their bluster. Otherwise it's strictly amusement, in all the predictable forms.

Someone like my wife, on the other hand, recognizes the internet for what it is: the bane of her existence. The internet equals work, or worse: a distraction from the things that matter most to her. In her off-work hours she might use the internet for some last-minute shopping, or to help with a daughter's school project. But as soon as the mission is accomplished, the computer is turned off and she has left the room.

She faithfully reads herself to sleep every night, novels only. She hates short stories. “Oh, I had a blast editing yours,” she assures me. “But the problem with short stories is if the central character is even halfway compelling you feel ripped off for not getting more of them.”

It's all about narrative value. As a writer, I get more value writing a short story. But as a reader, I'm forced to agree with my wife. Not just because what she says is the truth; she's also the last remaining market for fiction.

Endnote: this is what my wife is currently reading (recommended to her by a colleague), and she will stack it up against Denis Johnson or Jane Smiley any day.

3 comments:

Jim said...

I still read short stories. In fact I read a bunch of yours.

I still want to read short stories too. As long as they're good.

Whisky Prajer said...

You've punctured my bluster-balloon with a kind word, Jim. Still and all, given your fondness for Larry McMurtry's writing (a guy who writes as big as his home state), wouldn't you say you prefer novels to short stories?

prairie mary said...

Amazing how a sarcastic comment can stir things up! I was just thinking yesterday that I ought to clear my shelves of all those old left-over feminist books, but maybe not if the terms still have so much power.

But it is absolutely correct that the Internet has changed the terms of everything. There are a few literary mags on the 'Net and some of them even publish short stories -- but strangely those "short stories" are often scenes from novels in progress.

And what's this constant hunger for "memoir" about? Why scandal when the tale turns out to be bumped and pumped into something a little different than the actual facts? And do men outnumber women when it comes to memoir?

Prairie Mary