I have a bit of a quandary here. One of my favorite books is James Joyce’s Dubliners. The stories therein are renowned for taking apart the short story form; the beginnings and the falling action parts of stories are taken out, giving the reader the important part. This isn’t necessarily a new method; Anton Chekhov, whom Joyce read and admired, pioneered the dramatic method but it took some time for the style to immigrate west. Since then, Dubliners has been called one of the most influential books ever written, one that John Updike likened to taking a whole course in creative writing. So here’s my problem: I love Dubliners but dislike its influence.
Everyone who reads Dubliners is likely to ape it if they’re inclined at all to creative writing. I’d venture to say that every writer for the last century or so has written at least one short story where not much actually happens, then the protagonist has an epiphany, then it ends with sentimental prose. Joyce’s peers, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote many such stories. John Updike made a career of such stories. I’ve even written some (that I’ve since stashed away, never to see the light of day). What I should add though is tons of other writers have published stories in this form, and today, open just about any magazine including fiction and you’ll find a story not that far removed from Araby or Grace. It’s becoming overdone.
Joyce’s method worked great at the time. He invented short stories that were actually short, for one thing. Before him, so many short stories were close to forty pages long. Today though, after reading so many epiphany stories, I’ve grown to long for full stories, ones with beginnings and ends. Not only that, but I also want the spectacle to return to fiction; Aristotle called the spectacle a necessary part of drama, to give the audience something that doesn’t happen in day to day life. For this reason, I’m always disappointed finding stories where nothing at all happens, or where a person unpacks groceries for several pages and arrives at some important life lesson.
This hang-up of mine became so pronounced that when I sat down to write the stories for my new book, I forbid myself from reading Dubliners. It was hard not re-reading Araby or The Dead again for inspiration, but it was the only way I could safeguard against stories with no story. Instead, I ended up inexplicably reverting to Victorian standards, and some of my stories are around forty pages.
Anyways, for those of you who have been slighted before by stories that went nowhere and did nothing, I’d recommend the following.
The Enormous Radio, by John Cheever. John is a great writer in general, but exceptional as a short story writer. So many of his stories involve far-out premises. This Enormous Radio is one about a couple living in a shabby apartment building going through marital issues. Then, in the twist that saves the story right away, the man comes across a radio that can tune in to what his neighbors and other occupants of the building are saying. There’s a grim Twilight Zone episode similar to this where a television set predicts the future. If you’d like to read this one, go ahead and check out The Collected Stories of John Cheever from your local library. He was popular, so they should have it.
The Drowned Giant, by J.G. Ballard. He’s written a number of dark, grim tales influenced by Sci-Fi (but if you don’t like SF, that doesn’t mean you won’t like him). This one resembles a fable by Kafka or Marquez. At the onset of the story, a giant man washes up on the shore by a provincial town, drowned. The story revolves around how the townspeople react to the giant in their midst, and how curiosity and intellectual speculation soon give way to farce and exploitation. Look for The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard for this one. Deep End by him is also recommended.
Xingu, by Edith Wharton. This is one of the funniest stories I can think of. Edith Wharton has an absolutely devastating wit. Her work has been whitewashed over the years by the treatment classics get in the academies. Read this and pretend it was written yesterday and you’ll laugh. It’s about a stuffy, boorish book club who get together and discuss trendy books while openly dismissing books that greatly resemble the ones Henry James and Wharton herself wrote. One woman enacts a modicum of revenge by turning the conversation to Xingu, and then watches with amusement as the others go a huge distance to pretend they know what she’s talking about, so as not to seem out of the loop. It can be read for free here.http://www.readcentral.com/book/Edith-Wharton/Read-Xingu-1916-Online
Attack of the Charlie Chaplins, by Gary Kilworth. This is another story from the New-Wave sci-fi movement, similar to Ballard’s taste. If you’ve read the famous Donald Barthelme story about porcupines besieging a university, this might not seem so odd. As the title suggests, this is a story about being attacked by multiple Charlie Chaplins. It takes place on some military outpost where aliens have landed. It destroys the conventions of military SF while providing a good laugh. The ending is surprisingly provocative. Can be found in the New Worlds collection, edited by David Garnett.
Entropy, by Thomas Pynchon. Thomas Pynchon is a writer mostly known for his long work, but in this early short story he managed to turn a few heads. It’s about a party that quickly gets out of control. It’s also a story about entropy, the scientific term for the gradual state of chaos all things, even closed systems, fall into. He’d explore this idea in more detail in The Crying of Lot 49, but here it’s presented in slimmed down form. It can be found in the book Slow Learner.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to be a shill for a paragraph and recommend my own book The Madness of Art: Short Stories. I very recently published this online after being rejected by publishers probably looking for schmaltz. It’s a collection of eight stories all relating to the strange, chaotic lives of artists. I’ll admit, three of the entries resemble slices of life, but there’s symbolic grenades set to detonate in those stories. In one, modeled to be like My Fair Lady in reverse, a rich aristocratic young woman is knocked unconscious and wakes up, a la Rip Van Winkle, in a future where everything is ruinous and shabby, and to survive she has to lower her standards and learn of the discreet charms of poverty. In another, a patriotic Norman Rockwell styled painter sets himself up against leftist artists engendered by the beatnik generation, with mixed results. In the first story, a man and woman have lived their entire lives in a white room with no door, and it details what happens when they begin to imagine something more. It can be found for 6.99 at Barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.
To view it on Amazon, click here.
To view it on Barnes and Noble, click here.
Sooner or later I’ll add more bizarre tales to the list. Remember, before you set out to write short stories, try to read at least a few of the ones I’ve listed. If your heart’s set on writing slice-of-life, at the very least, make sure it’s a good slice.