Stephen Graham Jones is the author of 15 novels, five collections, and over 200 stories. He is the recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. His newest story collection, After the People Lights Have Gone Off, is scheduled for release this fall from Dark House Press.
Glory, I guess. Which isn't to say we don't celebrate short story writers — Carver, Wolff, Munro — and not at all to say either form's superior. Just that, fiction writers tend to be megalomaniacs, and crazy-jealous besides. Why just stake your claim on 30 minutes of a reader's time? Why not just steal their whole brain for 10 days, and maybe even turn them into your minion?
However, this could just be conditioning too. From two places, and one of those places is a person: James Joyce. He hit us with Dubliners first, and then, as we all tend to see it, he "graduated" to the "mature" form of the novel. As if he'd just been sketching shapes during commercial breaks of Three's Company, but now it was time to turn off the television and do some pointillism, do something "timeless" and enduring. The other way we get conditioned into buying into this model is the fact that writing is taught in classrooms, in semesters, by people. As opposed to the world, forever, by life. Just the format of the workshop, that we actually need to get stuff done, that kind of insists on the short story form. It's really hard to keep 10 people's ongoing novels in your head, while trying to write your own. A handful of stories a week, though, sure.
But the short story, it's not a step on the way to becoming a novelist. Like John Barth says, some writers are sprinters, some are distance. But there's all this pressure. You come out of your MFA program with a cogent clutch of stories, trying to get an agent interested, and she or he admits these are quality, sure, but this agent actually needs something the publisher can make money on. So you get kind of bullied by the market into writing a novel. And this makes me so sad. I see so, so many novels written by people who are obviously short story writers. What they end up doing, it's going the full distance, covering three hundred pages or so, but they do it by just writing five or six long stories, and weaving them together, making them interdependent. Occasionally you get some magic from that tactic — Love Medicine, say — but more often than not the product lacks focus. It's a good showcase of potential, sure. But sustaining a narrative, it's not about covering the requisite pages. It's about rigging the drama such that we've got no choice but to turn the page.
Still, the market's the market: You can cash some good checks writing stories, and get good attention, maybe pull a decent gig or two, but even if you write "Bloodchild" or "Lawns," those aren't going to generate enough royalties for you to buy groceries on a regular basis, even if the movies come sniffing around. Those stories'll open some doors, but the people opening those doors, they're expecting you to be holding a novel manuscript in your arms. What really interests me, though, are those stories like "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" or "A & P" or "They're Made Out of Meat," that served not so much as a calling card for a writer, but almost as a foundation for a career — as a novelist and short story writer both. That's rare. It's also rare for a collection to be that foundation, but, I mean, Sherman Alexie did it. Joe Hill did it. Why can't we all, right?
Anyway, the whole "starting with stories, ending with novels" thing, it's probably too ingrained in the industry and the psyche to change it. Though I do wish people would stop seeing a hot story from some upstart, and saying to themselves that's just lucky, let's see what they can do with the novel. We don't put poets under this kind of pressure, to go from lyric to epic. Maybe we should treat short story writers more like bands and artists we hear on the radio, with this week's top-of-the-charts song: If they do 50 more of those, they're maybe somebody to go all Beatles-crazy for. If not, if they're just a flash in the pan, then thank them for whatever new DNA they're injecting into the medium, and change the station when the song's through. However, this imperative, it doesn't hold for film, does it? With film, the short film, that is practice for the show, it seems. It's just how that industry's built, as near as I can tell. Fiction's different, though. Short stories and novels, they're different as well, and they often take different people to write them. If only we could, as a readership, as an audience, remember that, and allow short story writers to be short story writers, novelists to be novelists, and stop pressuring one to be the other. It'd clean up the shelves some.