Monday, October 31, 2016

The Center Of The Short Story Universe

Thanks to Penguin Random House and their First To Read programme, my inbox has been graced with short stories for the past two weeks, a serialized introduction to that which is deemed worthy of publication these days.

For some reason, I never seem to make any sort of effort to read short stories. There are literary journals galore, if I was so inclined. You'd think that short stories would be a perfect fit for those who like to read while commuting to work, the story fitting in with the time spent riding the rails or rattling over potholes on a bus. As easy as downloading a book, a reader could download the latest edition of whatever journal strikes the fancy.

Yet few readers bother. The average literary journal is the product of university creative writing departments, the production part of the training of the next generation of authors. Without such public funding, most journals would not long survive.

So how perfect, how fitting to my lazy tendencies and general tight-fistedness, that Penguin Random House has given me two short stories with no effort expended on my part. Free of charge, I can indulge and find out what makes a short story worthy of print.

The first offering came from Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife. What important topic does she choose to tackle?

Her protagonist is....a failed writer.

Really? That's the best that can be done? A writer writing about a failed writer? What about a failed welder? A failed farmer?

Write what you know is fine if your horizons are broad enough. But can writers write about anyone besides writers? They need to get out more, apparently.

The story itself was fine, with its stock characters of stupid Playboy bunny, feisty writer determined to succeed in her brief stint as a reality show contestant despite the odds, and a few celebrities thrown in to make the whole thing feel more real. The premise revolved around said failed writer as a contestant on a reality show that had something to do with finding treasure in trash and winning the show by getting the most money for the discovered items. The game show itself was the evil antagonist, with the host playing for the sort of drama you'd expect on a reality show if you ever watched such things. I'm more inclined to read a book, so I'm hardly an expert.

The second round of short stories came from Mona Awad, who came to fame writing about fat girls.

I suspect that the short story is actually an excerpt from her novel, 13 Ways of Looking At A Fat Girl. Considering that the short story giveaway is marketing by Penguin Random House to promote book sales, it's to be expected that they would offer a bit of the novel to entice someone to read more.

But would you want to read a novel about a narrator who wallows in self-pity and invites us to feel sorry for her?

That's what passes for short stories these days.

The material revolves around a self-centered universe, in which we the readers are invited to feel pity for people who are not exactly downtrodden or in desperate circumstances. Do we care about those who could solve their own problems if they realized that others have much bigger problems?

Yet publishers believe that is exactly what readers want.

Have they not spotted the connection, between low sales figures and the sort of books they publish? The market isn't there, or at least it isn't there outside of New York City publishing circles where self-pity thrives. The rest of us are just trying to pay the bills and keep the heat on.

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