Monday, August 23, 2010

The Ghost in the Story

Recently, I've been [attempting] to work on writing short fiction again, so I've delved into the usual suspects--The Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and all of those intimidating and over-sized fiction anthologies (The Art of the Tale, the Norton anthology, et cetera).

Of course, this is no way to decide what a short story is--there are far too many modes, voices, and styles to be so reductive about encountering any literary form. But it can be a decent way of seeing how other writers work within the confines of the form. The short story, by its very nature, is like the Campbell's condensed soup version of fiction. It takes all the stuff, packs them into one narrative can, and then lets the reader's imagination do the rest (easy as just add water!).

In my recent investigations, though, I've noticed an alarming trend in a number of the "best" short stories of recent years. Simply, it's as if the innards of the story aren't actually present. There's exposition--so we get facts, certainly, and we're just told what has happened--but it's as if the short story has gone intangible on us.

I started to get this feeling when I was reading Daniel Alarcón's "The Idiot President" in the 2009 Best American. Alarcón tells us the story of an actor's two-month tour with a theatre company, and--despite the information ("pop reworkings of García Lorca, stentorian readings of Brazilian soap-opera scripts, always with a political edge")--there seems to be hardly anything there at all. It's simply encyclopedic, a listing of what they've done. Where are the details?

What we don't get--even from Alarcón's first person narrator--is a hint as to what this environment is. So we're in "the anxious years of the war, when [the theatre group] was known for its brazen trips into the conflict zone, bringing theater to the people, and, in the city, for staging all-night marathon shows." But the words are haunted by the fact that there ought to be something visible and physical behind it. The words are acting like the plyboard blocking off a construction site. Alarcón is trying to build something, but he won't let us see it.

This is the trend I've noticed in recent short stories: There's a temptation to pass off information for detail, which betrays what the short story does best. That is, taking a moment and making it visceral and personal. Perhaps this is why other genres--the novel, the movie, the graphic novel/comic book--continue to get more public attention than the short story. Those other forms understand that human experience isn't simply a recounting of lists. There has to be something to interact with, not necessarily something visual but at the very least sensory.


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