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Book Clubs, Libraries, and Short Fiction


I'm new to Redroom, and I'm still learning the ropes here.  I'm best known for my short fiction, and my newest book, Months and Seasons, came out six weeks ago.  I now happen to be madly reworking and polishing my first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, whose publication date of March 7 is firmly in my sites.  I need to finish this book this month so the editor and book designer have time to do their magic before the Advanced Reading Copies are created for reviewers in November.  This is a business of deadlines.

I thought I'd try out my first Redroom blog by cutting-and-pasting what I wrote for another blogger, Dawn Rennert, a few weeks ago, because it's on a topic that matters to me: the difficulty of getting book clubs to cover--and libraries to stock--books of short fiction.

In Dawn's wonderful blog, She's Too Fond of Books, Dawn says her book club has avoided short fiction, possibly because they don't know how to discuss it. I know this is true of other clubs, too.Dawn asks others, "Has your group found a comfortable way to handle multiple stories?  Do you each select one to lead a short discussion of?  Do you use the democratic process, everyone gets to vote for three, and the top five get the floor?  Does the hostess select a handful to analyze, compare and contrast?"  (Click here to read her full posting.)

I've had much success with short stories, but it hasn't been easy.  It's not just book clubs that are resistant to short stories.  Every part of the publishing industry is.  Yet, thanks in part to Jhumpra Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth most recently, the ice is melting.

If I may, I'll offer insight from a writer's point of view. My first inkling short story publication would be hard was in the late nineties.  I'd been a produced playwright, and I'd written short stories for years, often between plays.  A few magazines, such as The New Yorker and Harpers publish short stories, but I couldn't start there. I had no name.

Literary magazines made sense, but I soon learned that it's more likely you'll be struck from lightning than published in literary magazines.   When you consider the North Dakota Quarterly receives over 500 short stories a month and publishes maybe ten an issue for no payment to a circulation of 800, you can see the problem. Few people publish short stories, you're not paid, and few people read them.

Still, I love the form.  I happen to teach English and creative writing, and I've found my students might not understand short stories at first, but they come to love them.  The joy they get in discussing, for instance, "Lust" by Susan Minot, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor, or "Carnal Knowledge" by T.C. Boyle is visible and rises as my students offer insight to each other. I conduct class like a book club.  Every voice has weight. My students ask questions of each other. Certain details bring meaning. I encourage thinking.

As for my publishing short fiction, lightning struck. I managed to publish several short stories in literary magazines over a few years and had the brilliant idea of putting the stories into a collection. I knew a literary agent and sent him the manuscript to see if he'd represent me. He called. I love your stories," he said. "You're a great writer. You should write a novel. I said I probably would someday, but could he send my collection out for possible publication?  He said no.  "There's no money in short fiction.  Any advance you'd get would be small. For the time it would take me to set it up, I'd get 15% of almost nothing.  I can't do it.  Write a novel."

This went back and forth with my suggestion that all he needs to do is put a cover letter on the collection, send it to a few places, and see what happens.  "Write a novel," he said to end it.I'll give this to the man: he got me to write a novel and when my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2006, and the Los Angeles Times reviewed it and well, he called to congratulate me, even though he wasn't my agent.  

The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea received over a dozen reviews, all positive, mostly in literary websites, but my coup was that Entertainment Weekly mentioned that it's a must read, and sales rose.The challenge to find readers. My second collection, Months and Seasons, had its publication party at the Beverly Hills Public Library last month as part of the library's New Short Fiction series.

To build on that honor, I hired a publicist so that the book might be reviewed in publishing industry journals such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, places that bookstores and libraries read to select what books they order.My publicist called to say she'd just spoken with Booklist, a major journal for librarians. They said they rarely review short story collections-maybe two a year-and it has to be from a big-name author."  I wasn't big name.

If librarians don't see the book reviewed, how can short story collections get in libraries?  If libraries don't offer a lot of collections, then how do people consider short story collections?  If book reviewers don't consider collections, then it's not on the radar of ordinary readers.  Thus, it's an extra challenge to get a short story collection seen.

I'm not disheartened. After all, Jhumpra Lahiri just won the Frank O'Connor Award and 35,000 Euros. Her book has been on bestseller lists for months.  These days, people like short stories because they have little time for reading compared to past generations, and short stories are beautiful small units. 

This brings me to how a book club might approach discussing a short story collection.  My notion is that short story collections as a whole should be thought of as concept rock albums.  That's because it's often the way collections are put together.  I fret like Bruce Springsteen over the order of the tales.  I work and rework the table of contents.  Some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader's emotions should be like California Screamin', the roller coaster I went on recently went on with my nine-year-old daughter: ups and downs, and the loop is a surprise.

A book club, in discussing a short story collection, might ask are there a theme or concepts that are apparent throughout the stories?  How do the stories bring light to this confusing thing we call life-and how do the stories do that?

Good writers allow the subconscious mind to lay imagery and ideas in their stories, and readers may find concrete meaning in things that slipped in. I titled my first collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea because it was funny, playing with Hemmingway's title. Yet reviewers found water imagery in a number of stories that played into theme. I had to admit it was there, but it wasn't conscious.

With Months and Seasons, I was aware of wanting to write stories about time-narratives of different people at different ages.  One story has a seven-year-old girl who is afraid of the water.  Another story has a 78-year-old playwright afraid of a raging fire. What is each reader's favorite story and why? 

My favorite part in reading reviews of my books is discovering which story hit home the most.  For instance, I happen to love a long review by Grady Harp, an Amazon Top Ten reviewer, because he discloses what he likes and why.  I happen to be serious about my fiction in that stories should entertain and open doors.

I sat in on a book club that was discussing my work recently, and it was fun. There were times things were spirited-someone didn't like something while someone else thought it was brilliant.  You know book clubs.  It's not about agreement; it's about disagreement and trying to get others see your point of view. It's about this crazy life.

I love book clubs.

If you have a book club, how do you start your discussions?

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Hi, Christopher


You and I were on a panel together at the West Hollywood festival a year or two ago. How you doin'?

You're actually the second person I've seen here today who I know from real life (and who thus might expect me to say "whom I know from real life).

So, nice to see you here.

And thanks for your thoughts on book clubs. I'm way behind the curve on that and gots to figures outs how I feel about taking better advantage of them!

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Hello, June

June, I remember you from the panel--great to "see" you here.  I've only had my page here at Redroom for two days, and I'm amazed at the number of people who have found it without my telling anyone.  This place is magical. 

I'm also glad you enjoyed the blog.  I happen to be hours from leaving on a road trip for two weeks, so I'll see what will happen over two weeks away from a computer.  (Yes, there are some people left in America who don't have a computer or iPhone linked to the web all the time.)

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Welcome, Christopher!

The Red Room is a wonderfully warm and supportive place.

I've never had a book club but I've done online interviews, chats, and have online Groups. I usually start with a brief intro if necessary (sometimes someone else introduces me) and a relevant question. I also try to make people feel comfortable, as if we were chatting in a real room. You will be setting the tone for the discussions.

Best of luck! I hope you'll keep us posted about your Book Club.


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Thanks, Darlene

Now that I'm back from my travels, I found your note.  Indeed, I'm finding this Red Room a supportive place.  I'll have to peek around the site more, too, to discover more authors. 

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Redroom author Lauren John is a book club leader

Hi Christopher,

Redroom author, librarian, and book club leader Lauren John has written a book on how to run book clubs for librarians. Maybe she could give you some pointers.

I have done online bookclubs as well with my friends. I don't have time anymore to do them, but they were fun while they lasted. We used the club function on myspace. Maybe you could start a book club here in the club section of redroom just devoted to short stories. :)

Have a great day,