Monday, March 14, 2011

Michelangelo, Twain, and Snooty Prose

I can’t help it; I want to write a short story. 

It’s crazy, I know, with one novel project nearly done, and two more in the same story line in my mind, not to mention a couple of other unrelated novel-sized projects ahead, for me to want to stop briefly to write a short.  But I do…I had an interesting idea, and I want to play with it. 

The short story, though, brings with it some interesting questions, specifically those beginning with the word "how."  I’ve researched the topic and task of publishing novels pretty thoroughly, so I’m sure I have at my mental disposal at least somewhere close to an underwhelmingly small percentage of the truth behind what goes on.  But I haven’t even considered how to publish short stories, so I started researching that after posting my blog entry last night.

Short answer…short stories, publish almost exclusively in literary magazines.  Makes sense, that.  I’d never really seen one in the book stores, probably because I hadn’t gone looking, but they’re still out there, and still taking submissions.  Turns out they, like the book publishers, are all different.  I mean, really different.  Go read a few submissions pages and you’ll see it too.  Some lit mags are like, “Yeah, man, we’d love to see your stuff.  Just be cool and send it in and we’ll be gonzo to review it, just let us know if it’s a simultaneous submission [e.g., same story to more than one mag at the same time], OK, man?”  Others, meanwhile, sound like the royal guards in London might if I asked to have tea with the Queen. 

Take, ferinstance, the Kenyon Review (, reportedly one of the, if not the best literary magazine around.  They even served to launch the careers of a couple of novelists who were mentioned (but I'd never heard of, embarrassing as it is to admit).  “You are also encouraged to read back issues of our magazine to see the quality and range of work that we accept,” their submissions page says.  In plain English: “Look at what we’ve published before you came along.  That’s the bar.  If you don’t cut it, don’t bother.”  So I gamely clicked away and read some of their back issues online.

On a soon to be related note (trust me, gentle reader), I used to run a lot at West Point.  I got pretty good, too; I could stack 5-minute miles on top of each other like nobody’s business, and my personal best in the 10K was just a few seconds over 30 minutes.  That really was fast, for a very amateur runner, and I was proud of myself for getting there.  Then I watched the Olympics.  Holy crap, those guys were fast.  I remember watching and realizing that I would never, ever, in a bazillion years, run that fast.  Don’t think I ran a single mile I didn’t have to after that, really.  Dumb reaction, I know, but it was what it was. 

The shorts I read that had been published in the Kenyon Review brought back the same feeling.  Holy crap, those guys could spin compact and beautiful prose like nobody’s business.  It was like watching a Michelangelo sculpture being formed in my mind.  I’ll never, ever, ever, neverever, never, be that good.  Ah think ah’ll jest go listen me up some Cable Guy videos now since that's all ah kin handle.  *ahem*

I went to bed kind of depressed after that.  It wasn’t entirely the feeling of never-be-that-good, really; the last story I’d read, if it had a newspaper headline as a title, would have been “Woman dies in icy water and man fails to revive her.”  Why, on a side note, do prose jockeys seem to have such a passionate hatred toward happy stories?  Anyway, the aftermath of reading that, especially with the author’s keenly honed ability to weave images and emotions together in my mind’s eye, left me down.

America’s Funniest Videos cheered me up…yay, Tom Bergeron!  That might have been why I woke up in a great mood, or it might, instead, have been my Significant Realization of the morning.

It was, simply: I wouldn’t buy their books.

Yes, the prose was tight, and the imagery grand, but the stories didn’t do much for me.  If you look at my bookshelf, it doesn’t contain a lot of prose jockey material.  Now I’m not saying it’s bad to be good at writing, certainly.  But I’ll forgive some lack of tight prose for a story that grips my gut, every time.  Take Twilight…Stephen King said, and I kind of have to agree, that the author isn’t very good.  But the story is compelling, and I enjoyed reading it, and she’s sold a whole lot more books than I have…and, likely, a whole lot more books than the prose jockeys I read last night have. 

Look at the famous authors in the classics section.  You have, for example, Hawthorne, who was pretty much the Intellectuals’ Bard.  Nobody could spin prose like he could, in my opinion, especially if by spinning prose you mean creating a single grammatically-correct sentence that spans multiple printed pages.  But the story told in The Scarlet Letter was engaging on a personal, core level.  Mark Twain is kind of the opposite; the man was a genius at creating accessible prose that ranks low on the readability grade-level scale, and yet high on the list of books you really ought to read and might actually have fun doing so.  His stories, too, are engaging on a personal, core level.  Granted, I think both of them rank well up as peers of the authors whose shorts I read last night, so they have no worries.  I ain't that good, though, so my point is that there are books that are well written, and there are books that sell well, and the two aren’t necessarily the same group.

I guess the message is that it’s OK for me, in my mind, to be in one group and not the other…as long as it’s hopefully, some day, the latter. 

Word count: 56,984

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1 comment:

  1. You have no clue how very good you are. Stretch those wings and take the chance. You WILL fly!