New: My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)

By Dorothy Bryant
Tuesday May 01, 2012 - 12:15:00 PM

" . . . a novel? Nothing but a short story padded. . . . Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read, all that is carried in the mind is the mere plot of what has gone before.”

—Ambrose Bierce, prolific California writer (1842—1913?—disappeared while covering wars in Mexico.) 

A writer (who was it?) once said, “We all aspire to write poetry. When we fail as poets, we try short stories, and when we fail at short stories, we become novelists.” 

Yet, we live in the age of “bigger is better,” even in literature. If and when critics write admiringly of a newly published short story writer, most predict that this writer will prove her/himself more than a flash-in-the-pan when s/he produces a novel. 

The results, when artists in the shorter forms follow this advice, are often disastrous. One of many examples: Kathryn Anne Porter. Admirers of her exquisite short stories wince at her finally succumbing to nagging publishers and critics. She wrote the novel, “Ship of Fools,” which so lacked the haunting subtlety of her short stories that, yes, it could be promoted into a commercial, stellar-cast, boring, cliché-ridden movie. 

Along with the pressure to create door-stopper books, the worst blow against the short story form may have been TV, assuring the death of most serious monthly magazines, which had always included one serious, well-crafted, and challenging short story. These days, we are lucky if we happen to pick up an old Harper’s while waiting for the dentist, and stumble on a work of fiction that socks us with a twenty-minute blast of soul-healing reality. 


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