Thursday, April 09, 2009

Brevity, sweet brevity

A. O. Scott asks us to reconsider the downtrodden, undervalued short story:

Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish. More of life is glimpsed, and glimpsed more clearly, through Barthelme’s fragments, Cheever’s finely ground lenses or the pinhole camera of O’Connor’s crystalline prose.

What's more, Scott observes, I think correctly, that new formats demand the writers be able to work in a reduced form.

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

The real insight is that these are both/and positions, and not either/or. Books, as the best way to consume extended narrative, will survive, although when given the choice, many people may consume their narrative in bits. This is an opportunity, particularly for young writers, to shape new forms and craft new aesthetics. There are new tools. Let new fictions rise to meet them. It is time for a new avant-garde. May it shock us all.

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