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Pissing Off the Wrong People
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My letter to the editor was featured in the current issue of Poets & Writers, which may mean I either will not be published again, or perhaps have stirred a little well deserved controversy. At any rate, here is the text of what I wrote as it was published in the magazine:

SHORT(STORY)SIGHTED?
Jofie Ferarri-Adler's "Agents and Editors" (March/April 2009) was interesting, but I was struck by editor Alexis Gargagliano's pet peeve about writers "trying to sell stories that aren't really a book. They're not a cohesive whole. There's no vision to the whole thing that makes me feel like this person has a reason for writing a story collection other than that they had twelve stories." As a writer who is working on a story collection I find these comments disconcerting. Am I a lazy writer? Do I lack talent because I have no vision? Am I wasting my time as well as that of readers, agents, and publishers with my ill-conceived collection? Later, as I was reading a book of John Updike's short stories it struck me that it held no central theme or vision other than that the stories were written by Updike during a period of six years in the 1970s and that they held his particular idiosyncratic fingerprints throughout. Is Gargagliano saying that she wouldn't have published such a collection by Updike-or Welty, Kerouac, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and others? This seems rather shortsighted and perhaps speaks to why short stories are considered a dying form.
JAMES BUCHANAN
Exeter, New Hampshire

I should add that I have previously blogged about this specific issue, but certainly have written a lot of posts regarding my frustrations with the world of short stories. It is more than frustrating that we have left an era where short stories were so brilliant and entered one where they are well written, no MFA program would expect less, but have so little to offer the reader in terms of content.

Comments
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Pissing People Off

First, I think there are no wrong people to piss off! But more importantly I wanted to agree with your point about short story collections having a "vision." I have actually found some of the most recent collections lauded as visionary to be somewhat redundant from story to story. I think that short story collections have become something other than what they used to be--truly collections. Now they are conceived of as a whole book--as opposed to a collection of stories that a writer has written and published over time. I don't think of, for example, The Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor as a collection with a "vision." Rather, they are unified by O'Connor's style, the South, etc. My sense is that short story collections began to change when people started reviewing them as "a short story collection that reads like a novel" or a collection with interconnected characters. I suppose that is one way to think of vision. But it isn't the only way. Well deserved controversy, I say.

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i saw that comment . . .

. . . in Poets & Writers, and had the same reaction -- and as a reader, rather than a (frequent) writer, of short stories. Thanks for taking the time to write to the Editor. I'm sure you were speaking for more people than just the two of us!

Peace.

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Thanks

Thanks to you both for the comments. I think that if any one were to read through my blog posts they would see that I really care about short stories as not just an art form, but a form that should be free of a mentality that says there is only one way to write them. When I read "Harrison Bergeron" by Vonnegut and "A Clean Well Lighted PLace" by Hemingway and "A&P" by Updike I am reading three very distinct and unique pieces of writing that speak to so much and say so much and are as free as any expression of art could be.

But when I read a publisher for a major house saying short story collections should be one thing and that one thing is thematic....uggghhhh!

Hopefully, I have made a few people think with what I have written and maybe a little controversy will be a good thing.

Thanks again,
James

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There are different types of story collections

but in one way or the other they are unified by the writer who wrote them. Whether they share a common character or township (this is an agent-friendly way of pitching/selling collections to publishers and readers who seek a novel but can't spend the time) or a style and setting, there will always be something that defines a collection. There isn't any other way that a collection could find its way into print. You cite several masters of the form. Those authors left their mark all over their work, whether short story or novel - what they wrote was linked both stylistically and by subject matter, whether it be the blue-collar Rabbit clan or the upscale New England clan, both of which Updike wrote with such elan. What I'm trying to say is that there are always themes and styles and things that are not definable that tie stories together, even if these are not immediately apparent. If you have enough stories, and they're really strong, they comprise a book. And who is anyone to say otherwise.