Friday, April 27, 2012

Through Clenched Teeth

In college, lo those many years ago, I had a conversation with my adviser about cinema (naturally, as she was a film professor and I was a film studies major) and theater. We agreed enthusiastically that most people automatically compare, if not equate, the two art forms, and that this is about as wrongheaded as you can be. Although they appear similar on the surface - actors' performance, script, director, passive audience, etc. - cinema and theater are very little alike. In practice, they're more different from each other than they are from performance-unrelated forms of art, i.e. movies are much more like books than they are like theater.

The main reason for this is that cinema, at its most essential, is movement in time and space. In theater, movement occurs only in time, and space is static. This doesn't seem on its face to be such a big deal, but it changes absolutely everything about the experience. Also, performances vary in theater, and cinema is always the same. Also, the je ne sais quoi that each art form intends to capture for its audience is entirely, utterly different. There are a lot of other alsos, but I don't have all day here.

I had occasion to think of this conversation again yesterday. I woke up feeling quite beaten by the experience I had writing on Wednesday, a science fiction short story on which I wrote about 1,200 words. The experience of it was
He presses his hand flat against the table and pushes down on it, making a show of effort. Slowly, his hand begins to move in tiny jerks across the table. “This,” he says through clenched teeth, his voice strained, “is what writing should be like.” (source
Aside from a story that came out at white heat, and a story that kind of bluoorped out while I was daydreaming, I've written nothing but novels for the last seven months, and nothing at all aside from nonfiction for well over a year before that. I am really amazed at how different the experience of writing a short story feels from the experience of writing the novels. It's completely different. I'm already working in a genre in which I'm insecure, as I consider myself a crummy sci-fi writer, but I'm also not so sure I'm a good short story writer. That is making things move even more slowly than usual.

I just finished reading a novel, Day, by a Scottish writer named A.L. Kennedy whose unsettling short story "Frank" I read in a Zadie Smith-edited collection called The Book of Other People, which I enjoyed enormously. "Frank" was one of the best in there, one of those stories that rattle you to the core, and I was thrilled at the idea of a novel by her. She got the best reviews of her career for Day, and I finished it on the plane on the way to the conference, and really, truly, strongly did not like it at all. I didn't exactly hate every word, but I didn't enjoy most of the experience of reading it. By the same token, I'm reading a very highly lauded book by John Crowley, Little, Big. Even my arch-nemesis, Harold Bloom, likes this book, which is CRAZYFACE because it's GENRE FICTION which is WRONG for SMART PEOPLE to READ. I discovered Crowley through a soul-shaking story called "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" that I read in Conjunctions a few years ago. I'm 100 pages into the book and I don't like it at all.

People think that short stories are just shorter novels, with a comparable arc and span and construction, but it isn't so. I remember reading, in several different places, that writers of short stories and writers of novels are really two different breeds, and it's quite rare to be good at both things. Raymond Carver wrote stories that changed the landscape of fiction, but produced zero novels. Annie Proulx's stories are absurdly good, visceral, unforgettable, but I felt nothing for the two novels of hers I read. (I'm trying to think of examples that go the other way, novelists who aren't good short story writers, but I think most of those folks just don't write short stories.) They're totally different animals. The finest short stories aren't much like the finest novels, in their bones, and vice versa. Some quality that made Kennedy's and Crowley's stories so astonishing is missing in their books. At least it is for me; neither book would have been so successful or had praise lavished upon it if critics didn't like it, naturally. But I do feel that they both have this thing, this lack of oomph, this sensation of slogging and muddling that is missing from their intense, ripe, fascinating stories.

Theater isn't just live movies, either. The finest plays would be wrecked or transmogrified into something thoroughly else if adapted to the screen, and a lot of cinema stories lose their power when removed to the stage.

The process of forcing my brain to clunk along in short-story-language on Wednesday was so challenging that I even tried to think of ways I could stretch this story out into a novel instead. Lots more work (theoretically), but I feel like I'd be on firmer ground, and I likely wouldn't be meeting so much resistance on the table. But I can't. And besides, I want to write it as a story, get it out of my head, move on to different things. My main character is clinically insane, and I don't want to spend too much time with him.

I just thought it was interesting to remember how two forms of media that seem to have everything in common have a lot less to do with each other than you'd think. With film it's very easy for me talk about why, but with novels and short stories it's less clear.


Denise said...

It's funny, I just started reading a Stephen King collection of short stories called Just After Sunset and in the intro he talks about this very thing. He says that he hadn't written short stories in a long time and was starting to get out of touch with how to do it. He was offered a short stories editing job and used it to kick start his practice again and wrote this collection. I think that he is one of those rare ones who is good at both. I like most of what he's written, so I'm a completely biased judge, but I have read a LOT of his work and I have favorites from his shorts stories, novels, and "novelettes" alike. I'm interested to hear more about what you've been working on!

Katharine Coldiron said...

I know that's not the only place I'd heard this, about the two media being so different, but it's not at all a surprise that I heard it from King. He's one of my favorite writers. I tend to think he has a lower success rate with short stories than he has with novels, and that he sometimes writes short stories a little too much like mini-novels rather than their own thing, but two of my favorite short stories ever are in Skeleton Crew.