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(some remarks delivered at the OutWrite Conference, February 1998)

In my reading about short story writer John Cheever last week, I came across a couple of quotes which speak to our subject this morning. The first comes from the critic, James O'Hara, and it concerns Cheever's decision, late in his career, to redirect his energies toward the novel:

 Inevitable as this change was, in purely artistic terms it may have been a mistake. Cheever was right in determining that novels would earn more money for himself and his family, along with greater professional recognition. Thanks in part to television and a general decline in literacy, the short story form in America had itself entered a period of decline. But a novel that became a best-seller opened a path to additional revenues, and motion picture rights were among the most lucrative of these. In fact, Hollywood producers were for a time very interested in the Wapshot novels and paid Cheever a respectable $75,000 for the rights to them. Still, one can only imagine what wonders Cheever might have been able to perform as a master of the short story, if ambition and such financial concerns had not turned his creative energies in another direction....There is ample evidence that while he was an artificial novelist, he was a natural teller of short stories (O'Hara 71).

The critic Stanley Edgar Hyman furthers these thoughts, although he's far less sanguine about the matter:

 When a highly-esteemed short story writer tries a novel and fails at it, in this amazing country, he is rewarded just as though he had succeeded. Thus Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools became a rapturously-received bestseller...and John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicle won a National Book Award. Now, in The Wapshot Scandal, Cheever has again tried, and again failed, to make short story material jell as a novel. As a two-time loser, he can probably expect the Pulitzer Prize (Hyman 47).

It's interesting and ironic to find myself on this panel, because for years I've thought of myself as a novelist, even though stories were my first love. I've written and completed two novels, putting in eight years at my desk, writing hundreds of pages, throwing out hundreds of pages, before finally stitching together two unwieldy Frankenstein monsters (in which I hope the seams don't show). While taking a vacation from a third novel, a particularly recalcitrant project, I've gone back to shorter forms, if only to experience the satisfaction that comes from completion. This happy accident has been an occasion of both comfort and upheaval. I feel more authority within the parameters of a story; my sense of voice seems surer, the stakes seem higher. Or at least it feels that way. Put simply, I'm more at home. Which has led me to wonder, in my darker moments, whether I've squandered years of my energy. Whatever possessed me to turn to longer forms in the first place?

At least a part of the answer, I'm reluctant to admit, is probably contained in the aforementioned quotes. How many of us have allowed ourselves to believe that stories are inferior to novels, that short fiction is inevitably the genre of the apprentice, that stories are only something you do on the way toward something else?

My worry is this: I wonder whether a hierarchy of forms, the artistic elevation of one literary genre over the other has come at a huge cost to us. The notion that bigger is better (oh, so American!) isn't necessarily true in all instances. Think about the work of Grace Paley or Raymond Carver or Alice Munro. None of these writers has ever produced a novel and their contributions to literature need no defense. Or the output of Donald Barthelme or Joy Williams or Mary Gaitskill, whose best work has been in shorter forms. Or Flannery O'Connor, creator of some of the richest stories in any language (and two "okay" novels) who said, "being short does not mean being slight."

Could it be that not every fiction writer is suited to writing novels? Novels (at least traditional novels), insist upon a global perspective, a die-hard belief in causality, in the cohesion of the self, in Time as continuous. But are there other equally legitimate ways of rendering experience? This is what I'm wrestling with: If I experience the world as discontinuous and broken, then why am I working so hard toward synthesis? Would I even want to make, in our troubled moment, an aesthetic whole? Wouldn't it only feel dishonest and forced? Why not, instead, concentrate on the shards. I recently reread Jayne Anne's Phillips' 1979 collection Black Tickets. From cover to cover this book is a richer read than most contemporary novels that I can think of. Though written by a straight woman, it's still one of the queerest books around--in the largest sense of the world. It's as if the writer herself is trying on so many selves and stances and styles, the individual pieces arguing against each other, in effect resisting a simplistic evocation of experience.

So my question is this: Is it possible that the short form is the form of the hour, and most of us -- readers, writers, editors, publishers -- haven't seen it yet?

  -- Hyman, Stanley Edgar. "John Cheever's Golden Egg." In Critical Essays on John Cheever. Ed. R.G. Collins. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.
  -- O'Hara, James Eugene. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.



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