jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 29, 2013 - 11:42am

Fairly or not, the novel is the Super Bowl of fiction writing, and any fiction writer who hasn't written one is going to be relegated to runner-up in the annals of literary history. --- Adrian Chen @ Gawker

Saunders writes a story collection which ranks as a bestseller, and this guy says it can't have "pop" influence. It's a bestseller. People say short stories don't matter, and then there's one on the bestseller list. (I know Chen is just ranting, and he basically admits it, but it's like people don't even bother thinking.) The "Super Bowl" of fiction? Please. If the Super Bowl comes to be a quarterly competition between thousands of teams of every level from Pee-Wee up to Hall-of-Famers, then this might make the slightest bit of sense.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life January 29, 2013 - 12:07pm

This is something I'm grapping with internally right now. I've dedicated myself to writing a novel this year, but being honest with myself, I much prefer short stories. The problem? You can't make a career out of just short stories. At least not in any of the genres I'm interested in (maybe there's an exception, but of course that just  proves the rule). Frankly at this point I'm kind of waffling between just devoting myself to short stories and forgetting about trying to make a career out of writing and instead just stick with writing my beloved short stories.

But does anyone disagree that novels provide the only path to a writing career? Think of all the people, time, work and money that go into getting a novel on the shelf. That alone adds to the point about the novel as the 'superbowl' of writing.

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break January 29, 2013 - 12:10pm

To continue on with this football analogy, wouldn't every story be considered a game? And the sale of those stories as a collection be your proverbial Super Bowl?

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life January 29, 2013 - 12:18pm

But you have to qualify to get to the playoffs to even... get to the superbowl? Football analogies are way over my head. I swear, I can use power tools!

Anyway, it seems like a short story collection would be incredibly hard to sell to a publisher--even moreso than a novel (self-pub is an option I guess, but having an agent/publishers etc has been my dream since childhood, so...). I don't know, but I've been researching, and what I've found so far is not heartening.

H.I.Marcuson's picture
H.I.Marcuson from Toulouse is reading a book on spelling January 29, 2013 - 12:39pm

Short story collections with a good enough (wrapper) can be sold as novels. The illustrated man, The martian chronicles, The books of blood etc.  Bastard to find one though ( agood wrapper that is), I know, I've been trying...

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life January 29, 2013 - 12:31pm

I mean nowadays. The market is pretty far from the days when Books of Blood (weren't those novellas?) came out.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts January 29, 2013 - 12:32pm

I'm pretty sure the only people who read short stories are other writers and college English classes. The college classes are probably reading prize-winning stories that are 30+ years old anyway, so new short fiction, yeah, just writers.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 29, 2013 - 12:33pm

The guy isn't even talking about careerism; he's talking about prestige.

But, regarding "careers," the Super Bowl is hard to get to; bad teams don't make it. Bad novels do get published. Football analogy for getting a novel published would be more like getting drafted by a team. You can be drafted and not play much. You can be drafted and suck ass. You can be drafted and injured in your first season, ending your career.

And HIM is right. Lots of books which sell well are technically story collections: This is How You Lose Her, A Visit From the Goon Squad, etc.

H.I.Marcuson's picture
H.I.Marcuson from Toulouse is reading a book on spelling January 29, 2013 - 12:36pm

Renfield, most of what I read is short stories.  Give me a great anthology over a good novel any day.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 29, 2013 - 12:39pm

Donald Ray Pollock's two books are story collections, aren't they?

H.I.Marcuson's picture
H.I.Marcuson from Toulouse is reading a book on spelling January 29, 2013 - 12:41pm

errum. who's Donald Ray Pollock? I'll google.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 29, 2013 - 12:41pm

He's some dude. People on this site like him. I read one of his books. Some of it was good.

H.I.Marcuson's picture
H.I.Marcuson from Toulouse is reading a book on spelling January 29, 2013 - 12:43pm

Another to add to the list...

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts January 29, 2013 - 12:53pm

@HIM and you want to write, right? Just think the general mass of non-writing adults aren't reading shorts regularly. Though, maybe horror fans read more short stories because it's a bit a part of that horror fan culture.

@JY Do books like LOSE HER/GOON SQUAD really sell well comparatively to novels and such that win the same awards and are similarly critically acclaimed? I mean, I think any of us here would be over the moon with the success of one of those collections if they were ours, but still, I'm not sure on the numbers on those books, but probably considerably less than Pulitzer winning novels. Those collections particularly are pretty novel-like as it is anyway.

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break January 29, 2013 - 6:36pm

Anyway, it seems like a short story collection would be incredibly hard to sell to a publisher--even moreso than a novel (self-pub is an option I guess, but having an agent/publishers etc has been my dream since childhood, so...). I don't know, but I've been researching, and what I've found so far is not heartening.

Yes, they are harder to sell. Most publishers know that the majority of readers prefer a novel over a slew of short stories. That, in turn, makes it difficult for the author/agent to sell to the publisher. This is what my agent tells me. He's representing my collection and it's been rough so far. 

We've been getting what he refers to as "good passes." This is when the publisher likes what they see but it's either not what they're looking for at the moment or they're concerned they wouldn't be able to meet the bottom line if they took on the project. The other issue is that I'm not yet "seasoned" enough. I haven't put up huge numbers, which makes me high-risk in their eyes. 

Another factor with collections is the publication history. Alan Heathcock who wrote the collection "Volt" has a laundry list of high-profile publications under his belt. To a publisher, that means Alan has "proven" himself. They're simply taking what's already sold and compiling it into a best of. Easy to market on their end. They can just name-drop the shit out of all his credentials.

So basically:

-the publisher has to like the writing

-the stories should be proven

-the author should be seasoned

Jeff, if I were you, I would focus on getting published as much as possible. Print publication that pays. Or win a high-profile contest. This is what my agent told me would assist the sale when we begin pitching again.

What's unfortunate is that when you talk about the business side of publishing long enough, you start to think of yourself less as an artist/creator and more of a risk that's calculated on a myriad of factors.

H.I.Marcuson's picture
H.I.Marcuson from Toulouse is reading a book on spelling January 29, 2013 - 1:02pm

@renfield Your/we're not making a product.  Your trying to express yourself.  Time and time again the great writers say things like "If your writing to make money, do something else"
And I wasn't dissing novels, I was defending shorts.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 29, 2013 - 1:22pm

Ren --- Yeah, they frame them up or "link" them somehow. Do they really tell one story? Are they novels? Was 2666 really one novel? Was Ulysses really a novel? Doesn't really matter any more. They posit a single world or continuum which the reader must understand, rather than one world per story or installment.

And regarding numbers, most novels don't sell well. Period. Fifty Shades is still topping lists. That tells you what most other novels are doing: not knocking off those three books. Maybe novels (as a group) sell more than story collections (as a group), but they also publish more novels than collections. Is the ratio of "collections published / sales" so different from the ratio of "novels published / sales?" That's the real question. And it may very well be.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life January 29, 2013 - 1:33pm

Thanks Brandon, those are excellent points. Did you publish your novel before trying to sell your collection?

I do think that writers as a whole enjoy short stories more than readers. My wife, for example, is a voracious reader, but turns up her nose at short stories--and she is baffled by flash. 'Why would I read that? There's nothing there!' I asked around her book club, and none of them had even a micron of interest in short stories--and these are daily readers. Sure, a small section of readers, but still.

 

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break January 29, 2013 - 1:53pm

Did you publish your novel before trying to sell your collection?

Vanity press in 2008

Dumped them to go with Otherworld Publications in 2011

Otherworld closed, so now OUT OF TOUCH and GOOD SEX, GREAT PRAYERS will be coming out through Perfect Edge Books this year. We'll pitch the collection again in the summer I think. 

I do think that writers as a whole enjoy short stories more than readers. My wife, for example, is a voracious reader, but turns up her nose at short stories--and she is baffled by flash. 'Why would I read that? There's nothing there!' I asked around her book club, and none of them had even a micron of interest in short stories--and these are daily readers. Sure, a small section of readers, but still.

Yeah, I also think that most people kind of turn their nose up at short stories, and I've read a few that were terribly fucking disjointed: one good, followed by a few so-so ones, then a shitty one, then a return to good. They're almost like albums in that regard. You buy the whole thing buy you may only really love two or three songs.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts January 29, 2013 - 2:50pm

@renfield Your/we're not making a product.  Your trying to express yourself.  Time and time again the great writers say things like "If your writing to make money, do something else"
And I wasn't dissing novels, I was defending shorts.

Oh I didn't think you were dissing them, nor am I trying to diss your defense of shorts. I totally agree with you on that, and yeah, short story writers are just as artistically valid as novel writers. I thought, though, the point of  Adrien Chen's comment was about legacy. And I think his point is that it is about product, not about actual artistic value.

What short stories does the average public revere? In grade school we read Poe, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery maybe, Flowers for Algernon. The rest of most all short-story-dom is left for writers and MFA students to enjoy. When normal folk think of literary history they think of novels. Lolita and The Great Gatsby and other such bullshit. How many short stories perfectly represent the current times from, say, the 80's can you think of off the top of your head compared to novels? It's a stupid point to make, but I think I get what the guy's saying.

Ian's picture
Ian from Texas is reading Low Down Death Right Easy by J. David Osborne January 29, 2013 - 4:17pm

As someone pointed out above, writers and the more literary-minded read short stories as much as they read novels, if not more so.  Within that specific community, names like Carver, Hempel, Cheever, Poe, Borges, Barthelme, and yeah, George Saunders are a big deal.  Every one of them focuses almost entirely on short stories.  Saying you have to write a novel in order to "make it" in the literary world is ludicrous. 

Also, does that mean David Simon has to make a movie otherwise no one will remember The Wire?  There may be plenty of reasons to discount The Wire now or in the future, but Simon not having a feature film under his belt is not one of them.  Ditto for Saunders.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 29, 2013 - 8:34pm

It's easier to market one big story (a novel) than a bunch of little ones. It's easier then to make money off those big stories than small ones, so the publishers focus on them. Then they gain greater readership amongst the general public, because that's what stores and advertisements focus on. Then, years later, people go out of their way to write about how no one reads short stories, enunciating what they see as a fact of life. (This could all be said about poetry as well.)

So, yeah, if you want the general public (whoever they are) to be your audience, then novels are the way to go, regardless of what many people actually like, because the publishers think that's how it is, and so it might as well be, most of the time.

Regarding what is taught, I think people are pretty skeptical of anything being added to the canon.

A) No one agrees on what makes literature good or important, i.e. the meta-narrative has been dissected and more or less discarded. 

B) There's so much more writing out there, a lot of which is at least somewhat good, no one could possibly whittle it down to representative examples. You could have a college course for every decade since World War 2. (Someone probably does already.)

C) A and B combined leave you pretty certain that Saunders (or anybody) would have a slim-to-zero chance of becoming anything more culturally important or significant than a successful, acclaimed writer.

What would an iconic 21st century writer look like on paper? What characteristics would they show? No one will ever agree on this, and so it won't happen. (I don't think.) No icons, only instances.