Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guest post: Polly Frost's Confessions of a Genre Slut

One of the many things I admire about The Short Review is the way in which it celebrates all kinds of short fiction. Recently Tania Hershman wrote about the topic of literary short fiction vs. genre short fiction. I was really fascinated by her posting, which made me think about my own attitudes and experiences.

Attitude #1: I love both writing and reading short fiction.

Attitude #2: I’ve always been puzzled by the divide between the “literary” and “genre” worlds.

And let me say first that I admire anyone who persists writing stories. And I’m grateful to readers who -- despite far too much mainstream media neglect -- continue reading short fiction.

Let’s face it: It’s hard to make money writing short fiction. It has to be one of the least practical forms of writing. Not only have commercial outlets disappeared. Agents and book publishers often discourage you from writing short fiction.

They do this despite the fact that everyone knows our schedules are choppy and our reading time is growing too scarce. It should be a great time for short fiction. Instead, too many mainstream-publishing figures put pressure on writers to“grow up” and turn out novels. Grow up, indeed. Tell it that to Chekhov! And too many readers think they aren’t doing any real reading unless they’re in the midst of something 400 pages long.

All due respect to novel-writers and novel-readers, but when a lot of the novels today feel like they should have been short stories. Good ones, often! But they feel padded-out, like the writer had been ordered by an agent or publisher to turn a good story-idea into something full-length.

The fact is, short stories don’t just offer a concise reading experience. They often have a special kind of power over readers. My mother, for example, was still affected by having read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” several decades after first reading it. In my own experience as a writer: People have written me about a one of my pieces of short fiction years after it was printed. Somehow it had stuck in their minds.

How great is this?!

Still, short fiction is something that takes commitment and love to write and publish. And it takes savvy and persistence on the part of readers to find and enjoy. I’m on the side of anyone who roots for them.

Which brings me to the topic of the war that goes on between the literary and the genre worlds. You’d think that anyone who writes or read it would be cheering for everyone else. Instead, some highbrow literary people sneer at genre stories. Meanwhile, there are genre people who are belligerent and defensive.

Zooming in, you discover other divides too. There are the genre-within-genre wars like the one that The Short Review posted about: The mundane sci fi fiction camp versus the fantastic sci fi fiction camp.

Now, in many ways I love these tiffs. What we’re seeing is writers who are passionate about what they do sounding off their art. And that’s vital for good health as well as fun to observe. Their manifestos are provocative, and they make me think about what the writers conveying in their fiction. As a writer myself, I grope my way towards my fiction. But I understand that some writers motivate themselves by writing manifestoes.
Still: How seriously to take these dust-ups?

As a Californian who grew up on loving both Roger Corman exploitation movies and Glenn Gould Bach recordings, I guess I’m a bit of a natural-born post-modernist. And as a consequence, I’ve published short fiction in a variety of genres. I’ve been published as a humor writer (two of my New Yorker pieces will be included in their upcoming “best of” anthology), and I’ve been published as a horror, sci fi and erotica writer (my collection, “Deep Inside” was put out last year by Tor).

The one thing I’ve been a total flopperoo at has been writing “literary” short stories. As a writer I got started by taking a workshop in Venice, California, from Michael Silverblatt, who’s now well-known as the radio interviewer The Bookworm. I churned out straight-faced story after straight-faced story. Then, after several weeks of this, Michael took me aside and informed me that I had no talent for writing literary stories. He softened the blow by telling me that I was very funny, and that I might want to think about writing humor. Maybe I should think more about emulating James Thurber than Italo Calvino.

Damn! But after 15 seconds of feeling wounded I started to see his point. I knew that I wasn’t a lofty marble bust. I’m a mischievous bomb-thrower -- basically a satirist and a humor writer. (In fact, Michael and I wound up co-writing several humor pieces, one of which was published in The Atlantic.)

These days I write in a variety of genres and often refer to myself as a “genre slut”: sci fi, erotica, noir, suspense, horror, and my longterm love humor. Tip to those setting out: Satire and parody are great ways to explore many different ways of creating fiction!
Despite how zigzaggy my creativity is, the one thing I always come back to is writing short. I’m working on a full-length thriller right now and my husband and I just finished co-writing, recording and directing a 14-hour radio play and 32 NYC actors. Great experiences all. Yet it’s always a rush to come back to writing short.

I suspect that many writers feel this way. Besides the fact that they’re brilliant and beautiful writers, I love the fact that Amy Hempel and Alice Munro are so devoted to short fiction. Erotica writers like Alison Tyler and Rachel Kramer Bussel continue to supply heat and shivers in compact packages. I’ve been as affected by the short tales of Philip K. Dick, Stephen King and Patricia Highsmith as by their novels. Raymond Carver and George Saunders never made any apologies for writing short. And there’s the much-too-neglected field of humor writing. As far as I’m concerned, some of the humor pieces of Ian Frazier and Roy Blount, Jr. qualify as short fiction masterpieces.

It’s all high-quality -- maybe even great -- stuff. And you may have noticed my ploy in the previous paragraph. Look at those stories and writers: literary, erotica, sci fi, crime, horror and humor. They go together nicely, don’t they? What does it really matter that they come from different camps?

So here’s my final feeling about the question. Let’s enjoy the wars, the tiffs, and the manifestos. They give us something to talk about, and they give at least some writers reasons to sit down at the computer. But let’s not overlook what our favorite short fiction shares too: insight and inspiration.

As well as the special thrill of doing self-contained pieces of fiction in short form.

The Fold,” the webseries Polly has co-written and co-produced. (R-rated!)
Her husband, Ray Sawhill's site.


Frances said...

Great post, Polly! Words to treasure. Thank you!

LiteraryMinded said...

A thoroughly enjoyable piece - cheers!

Tim Jones said...

Erase outmoded genre distinctions, I say! Let stories of all types labour side by side in the fields of literature!

Or something like that, anyway.

Group 8 said...

I enjoyed that, Polly.
A lot of reviewers / publishers / editors view of the short story is far too narrow, too linear. Too boring, indeed. TG for small publishers and lit mags, who take a chance on sparky writing.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Polly!

Anonymous said...

Informative. Curious of course re: the publishing side. I'd like to talk to you about what you think is most easily pubbed....
I'll link to this piece on my blog.