The Death of the Death of the Short Story

After J. David Stevens’s “The Death of the Short Story,” originally published in North American Review, collected in both Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories and Stevens’s Mexico Is Missing, the latter of which appears to be available in its entirety on the Ohio State University Web site.

Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” —n+1

The night I first met the short story it had just been beaten up pretty badly by a couple of these aggro publishing kids. You know the type: they had their own lit mag, they had distro and a blog, they had a tire iron and a bone to pick. What is it with these Young Turks, always needing to take a brick to the skull of one genre or another? A generation ago they nearly killed the short story and the chivalric romance in one fell swoop in a bar brawl up in Oregon somewhere. This time around, the kids tried a sucker punch, invited the story to a release party for some new anthology they’d put together, at a swank restaurant down on the Bowery, they said—except there was no anthology, no party, no restaurant, and that’s where I found it, bleeding adverbs all over my stoop.

No, the short story is not dead; it is alive, and well, and shacked up in my living room, actually, in a kind of mother-in-law apartment situation I’ve set up for it. It’s constantly hearing reports of its death, though, has been hearing them for forever—or at least since around the time Collier’s closed up shop—which, in spite of how often it’s been jumped, kicked, pummeled, and stomped, it finds perpetually surprising.

“Like Mark Twain reading his own obit,” says the story.

“Word to that,” I say.

Almost more troubling than the reports, past tense, of its recent death, are the predictions of its imminent demise. The story gets this horribly anxious look. I tell it not to worry. It’s okay. These are just death prognostications, I say—it’s not like they’re death threats! That thought usually just makes the story feel worse—what’s the difference between a prophecy and a fatwah, when you’re at the receiving end?—but it always pulls itself together quickly. That’s not naïve optimism, that’s just science, just the nature of a ruthlessly efficient little body with a spine of infinite possibility running through it.

Is it dead? No. Unwell? Hardly! But is it feeling a little apathetic, a little resigned, about all the diagnoses and prognoses it gets, the perennial baseball bats to its plots? The story shrugs.

“I meet a lot of people,” it says.

And it’s true. Some of these meetings are as long as the frequent one-night stands the story has. Or weekend-long benders. (I don’t even bother asking for it to call me to let me know it’s not coming home; I know now how resilient the story is; whether it’s off fighting a distant war, or holed up in some hotel with a hooker, a bottle, and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, I know it’ll be back soon.) Sometimes people only meet the story for as long as it takes for it to buy a pack of cigarettes at a deli. Or hold up a bank. Or sprout wings and fly out through the emergency roof exit of the crosstown bus. Or have a quiet epiphany—in the living room, at the county fair, over dinner—about its drunken father and the meaning of life. So many drunk, absent fathers the story has! A million damaged childhoods! So many sad mothers who had to abandon it in the dark of night on the doorstep of their local creative writing program!

And so many quiet epiphanies! It’s fun, all these crises, all these realizations; although I have to admit it gets a little exhausting, emotionally speaking, just from crying so much. We both cry a lot.

And yes, sometimes I get confused, living with the short story; sometimes it seems like it’s trying to prove something to me, or like it’s reverting to some very juvenile stage, where it wants to be smarter and more difficult than it is, where it wants to obfuscate all meaning, all sense. Where it wants to be cool.

Like last night. We were hanging out, having a mellow evening, watching some television. The story always likes to watch these great half-hour dramas you get these days—they’re its grandchildren, after all. It’s very fond. The story got this funny look.

“I worked for Kristin,” it said.

“What?” I said. “Who’s Kristin?”

The look got even funnier, like it wanted me to understand what it was talking about, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain it directly. The story looked the way it often does, like its compact little self was bursting at the seams with meaning.

“Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious,” it said.

“Do I know Jeff?” I asked. “Do I know these people?”

The story shut up again.

“Are these people you know from a workshop?” I said.

It waved at me, as if to say, forget it, I’m done with explaining what I’m on about for now. Then it pointed at the television. Check it out, I think is what it was telling me. This is good stuff. There was an hour-long dramatic series coming on—one of these shows with multiple, interwoven plotlines playing out over the years, bloated and baggy, but beautiful, impossible not to watch.

Then the doorbell rang.

“That’ll be the novel,” said the story. “It doesn’t have cable.”

Who am I to say no? These old genres have enough problems.

I went to get the door.

The Web Is a Print Medium

Oh, man. This is awesome. Do a print preview of this page. (If you’re looking at this either on the home page or on the page for the post itself, that is—search and archive pages won’t do it.) Check it out!

I’ve been wanting to have this site set up so that links print out as footnotes ever since I saw this function for the first time at Wet Asphalt. Those guys have a separate printer-friendly version for each post, though, which appears to involve skills (nodes? Drupal?) that are out of my depth. But after searching around a little bit I found Aaron Gustafson’s article “Improving Links for Print” on the ever-useful A List Apart, which explains the problem, and the brilliant solution, and has links to the files on Gustafson’s site where you can download everything you need to set this up yourself (this is the main thing, but you’ll also need this). It took me a while, but I finally got it to work.

Putting aside, for the moment, the environmental impact of printing Web pages (which seems like it’s surely a more complicated matter than it would appear to be at first glance, in the larger context of things like paper recycling, personal computers ending up in landfills, the energy needs of the computers on which the Web itself lives, serial sending-long-memos-to-the-office-printer-then-forgetting-about-them-ists, Bush, etc.): Isn’t this cool?

And potentially incredibly useful—like, say you print out an interesting article, and it has a link to something that’s related to the article and is also interesting, but you don’t print that out, and the link is written with extremely vague language—e.g., “this”—but then the original article comes down, or moves, or the site on which it was originally published dies, but you still have that original printout, and you want to find what “this” is, or was, but you can’t?

I mean, why don’t all Web sites have this?

To-Do List

‘It would be so much easier if we could say, “Well, if we approved this one project or this action, the problem would be solved,”‘ [Peter Clavelle] told me. ‘But there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one thing we can do. There’s no ten things we can do. There’s hundreds and hundreds of things that we need to do.

‘I’m frustrated,’ he said. ‘But you need to remain hopeful.’

—Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Newness

I migrated this site from my old hosting company to Media Temple; I installed WordPress, and imported all my old Movable Type posts into it; most everything appears to have survived the transition, except that dozens of links are now broken, but I’ll fix them later; I’ve picked the plain-vanilla default template, and tweaked it slightly, and I’m not messing with it anymore for now; I’ve installed one plugin, and that’s probably that for the time being as well; my e-mail was only completely broken for a day and a half, which isn’t so bad, especially on a long weekend, so with any luck I didn’t miss anything too important.

Cool!

Done!

And on to more important things!

Associative Thinking and the Limits of Robots

About a month and a half ago, in the book review section of the paper of record of the city where I used to live, a woman whose two most recent novels have been published by the small press where I used to work reviewed a book—a novel told as a series of stories—by a woman who was a couple years ahead of me in high school. In that same issue, a man I know because he and I went to the same creative writing program reviewed a novel by a man who was a few years behind me in high school.

These were funny coincidences for me, but are they interesting to you? Probably not, or not as much; the only aspect of this that I imagine might be really compelling to someone else would be if that person was interested in trashing my high school; our alma mater is one of those places people like to trash (kids behaving badly in the ancient halls of perceived extreme swankiness! etc.).

But here’s what I think is great: having read the first paragraph of this post, it would be possible for you, a human being, to go and figure out who it is, and what it is, that I’m talking about.

On the other hand, if you’re a robot spider from a search engine, out on your endless crawly rounds, you won’t have a clue. And I don’t think you ever will.

(Which is not unrelated to the trouble I have when I’m searching for, say, something I read years ago about the future of the physical book that I’m pretty sure was written by a novelist who was the same year at the college where my dad went. So much white noise! I get frustrated when my favorite search engine tells me: “Tip: Try removing quotes from your search to get more results.” I don’t want more results—I want one very specific result, and I think I need to go talk to a human being at a library to get it.)

Sorry, robots! You lose! We’re still in charge.