On the nature of narrative


I have a short story that is 6,300 words long. Trying to find a home for this story is proving challenging because the nature of the short story market has shifted toward short-short work or what some call flash fiction. These are stories that are less than 1,000 words. I have written exactly two stories that are this short. And the best of these stories started out at 2,200 words and I sliced and pared it down to 993. As an experiment, really, to see how far I could break it down and still have it make sense. To me, it was an incredible exercise in the nature of both narrative and sentence structure. My story, even at less than 1,000 words, has conflict, a strong sense of characterization and a beginning, middle and end. I am very proud of the work and trying to find it a good home. I have confidence that it will be picked up and published. (Not to say that I am full of that kind of self-confidence normally, but I think this story is pretty good.)

This hulking six thousand word story is an entirely different thing. My options are very limited. So far as I can tell there are a number of problems at work: the trend toward shorter stories to accommodate a short attention span, a focus on experimental works that eschews more traditional narrative structure, and the problem of a story that does not open with a bang and that grab-you-by-the-throat sort of moment.

First, attention span. Some journals have imposed five thousand word limits on submissions. Some of this, no doubt, is a residual component of our shortened attention online. We hear this all the time – the Internet (how evil and insidious that machination of man) with it overload of information is trying to make everything fit into small spaces, neat compact little cubbies. In 140 words or less. I know Hemingway wrote an eight word story. Good for him, but alas I am not Hemingway. I need a little more space.

Experimentation and the narrative structure. I recently received a rejection (no, I’m not going to start cataloging those since there are far too many sites that do just that – Literary Rejections on Display and Jac Jemc are the best I’ve found) that said in no uncertain terms that exposition, and traditional narrative was out. For the record, I don’t blame him for rejecting my story – it isn’t very good. I excerpted it from a novel and the piece standing out, naked and alone from the other text, doesn’t have the impact it does in the book. But it started me thinking about this whole thing. So, no hard feelings.

I researched the editor a bit and read a few posts that gave his point of view of the aesthetics of a good story. I admit that I didn’t quite understand all of it, but my take away was that they were looking for the fractured prose that could be termed experimental. Non-linear, deconstructionist prose that plays with form and pushes conceptions of what IS narrative.

But what does that mean? AD Jameson at Big Other has two great blog posts – “Innovation in Art” and “Experimental Fiction as Genre and as Principle” on the topic of experimental work. Well worth a read to wrap your mind around this issue. Jameson highlights the importance of pairing innovation with convention, and how works often straddle these labels and fall along a spectrum.

Charles May also tackles this question on his blog Reading the Short Story. He references the Ben Marcus essay in Harper’s Magazine (October 2005) that defends experimental work in response to Jonathan Franzen’s criticism that it obscures language. You can read that article here.

To quote Mr. May, whose thoughts mirror my own on the subject:

“I align myself with Marcus’s argument that fiction writers use syntax to explore human complexity, but would further argue that writers such as Alice Munro and William Trevor, who are often called “realists” or “traditionalists,” use language in this self-conscious way, as well as so-called “experimental” writers such as Evenson and Caponegro.”

This recognition of subtlety within the work of more traditional writers is important. It certainly supports Jameson’s argument that convention is necessary in innovation in order to engage the reader. Recently in my face-to-face critique group a writer submitted a story that I would term traditional with experimental features. The story, at first glance, appeared ordinary – BUT there were subtle thread and use of narrative that really grabbed me as the reader and altered my experience in understanding the characters and the story. There were no direct quotes, the imagery was nontraditional and complex, and on an individual word level the language worked together in a way that both surprised and challenged me upon reading. Yet, I am sure that when this writer sends that story into the world at first glance it will be labeled “quiet” and the subtlety will be missed. One member (a smart, astute reader) in our group missed that subtlety completely. Maybe the lesson is: just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there?

So, I would argue that experimental work is a broad category with many subcategories including form/structure, characterization and style. I admit that I read some stories that fit an experimental aesthetic with form and I am left scratching my head. Perhaps they don’t embrace enough convention that gives me an entry. I understand that the stream of consciousness technique and metafiction (nothing new there by the way) does help impart a mood and tone particularly important in capturing the modern state of mind. But these stories delve deeper than Joyce or Woolf into terrain that doesn’t work for me. I appreciate work that crosses boundaries and straddles the line between poem and prose, but I want it to have a backbone of inertia, conflict or character that makes me care. I have read many, too many to list, that open up a door in my mind and give me that grand a-ha moment. But too often the works I see that are promoted as cutting edge all sound the same to me.

See, that sounds kind of bitchy. I know. I don’t mean to be. I’ve just noticed a trend with these stories. Frankly, it is good that they are so short because the best element I’ve noticed is the opening line. It starts with a bang, maybe a good “fuck” thrown in, something sexual, something deviant, and something trying to be shocking. After this grab you by the throat start things often peter out from there. That is the disappointment, really.

What matters is that you read what is out there – to know where your stuff falls on the spectrum. I admire those who experiment, even if I don’t always get it, but I recognize that whatever experimenting I may do it will be more subtle. I like a straightforward narrative, a good traditional story form, that transports me somewhere new into a new perspective or take on the complexity of character and relationships.

Photo credit: Coolm36 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/coolmars/

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