January 25, 2012
STEVE ALMOND: I wanted to start with a basic question I get a lot as a story writer: Why do publishers view story collections as risky? I have my own theory, but I’m curious what you think.
BRUCE MACHART: There’s no question in my mind that, as a rule, collections receive only slivers of the big publishing house pie in terms of publicity and marketing attention. We can all point to the exceptions, but it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy among publishers that “short stories don’t sell.” Because they believe this, they don’t want to commit resources (whether it be time or dollars) to promote books of short stories. The surprising result? Well, most collections don’t sell.
I sold more copies of my well-promoted first novel in the first week after publication than I’m likely to sell of my largely ignored collection in a year. I hope like hell that’s not a reflection of the writing. I surely don’t believe that I was writing 52 times less artfully when I wrote stories.
I’ve read both books, carefully. And though I dug the novel, I actually like Men in the Making better. As a story writer, or a failed novelist, or whatever I am, I’ve certainly experienced the industrial mistrust of collections.
I had one publisher ready to throttle me for insisting that my second story collection come out before the novel I wrote with Julianna Baggott. But I certainly understand why publishers steer clear of collections, and tend to give them less support.
My own theory is that a short story simply demands a closer reading than a novel. It’s more compressed. You can’t let your mind drift for a paragraph or two. It makes urgent demands on your imagination and your heart.
Stories do demand a distillation of language, a density of meaning, and in this way I find short stories more akin to poems. I do believe that publishers often fail to make enthusiastic attempts to promote collections, but that doesn’t preclude your ideas, which ring true to me.
Recently I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, and it frightened the hell out of me. The premise, for those who haven’t read it, is that the constant interruptions of the Internet Age (pervasive text message alerts, the allure of hyperlinks, real-time email updates) have profoundly effected the plastic human brain. New generations (and those of us who carry our computers and smart phones with us everywhere) are re-wiring their brains to read in a shallow, lateral way. The brain changes according to how we use it, and the result of teaching ourselves to pay attention to all the distractions, to the video feeds and hyperlinks and email updates, is that we don’t teach ourselves to read deeply, to lose ourselves in stories, to immerse ourselves in the written word so that we block out the distractions. The result, perhaps, is that the deeper reading you speak of, the kind of reading that short stories require and reward, may be a vanishing cognitive function. I think about what has happened to the popularity of poetry in this country, and this line of thinking seems all the more likely valid. Less than 75 years ago, Robert Frost was selling tens of thousands of copies of his books, and now poetry is all but absent from American popular culture. And so we have a knife with at least two sharp edges–a shrinking readership and a publishing industry that assumes that stories will fail, commercially speaking. Cheerful stuff, yes?
Honestly, the side of this that terrifies me — the one that makes me feel implicated — is the idea that our brains are changing. I can feel it in my every day life. Back in grad school, in the mid-90s, there wasn’t any home Internet. I had to slog up to school to check my email. Now the entire world of gossip and political combat and ego surfing and porn is at our fingertips. The Internet has monetized distraction, in essence.
In almost every instance, it provides convenience at the expense of depth. In my own travels as a visiting writer, what I find most striking is that the students I encounter talk more about TV shows and movies and Youtube clips than about books. And remember: these are aspiring writers. I know the boilerplate response to this, which is that we’re being old fashioned and underestimating the positive effects of smart phones and hyperlinks and all the rest. But my own experience tells me that the good writing only comes when you arrest your attention in the midst of distraction. (I’m paraphrasing Saul Bellow.) What’s your experience, as a full-time teacher?
It varies. I have a class of young writers this semester, and they are blowing my mind. They are open to the conventions of craft, and they apply them enthusiastically, and it seems to me that their language is wonderfully uninhibited. But most of them don’t read anything “literary,” or they hadn’t until they got to college. And many of them don’t read much at all.
I think there has likely always been a gulf between sophisticated readers and unsophisticated readers, but the gulf has widened. I recently flipped
through a wonderful issue of The Atlantic from the 1940s. I bought it a while back because it was the issue in which Eudora Welty’s aptly named “Powerhouse” first appeared. That story kicks my ass, waits until a tender bruise appears, and then puts on steel toed boots and kicks the bruise. It’s amazing. What is equally amazing, though, is the erudition of the articles seeing print in those days—the other articles in the magazine. A lengthy piece on, interestingly enough, the state of fiction in America. Multiple short stories. A fascinating article on Jews in the Ivy Leagues. All written with elevated diction and artful, complex sentences.
Now, I’m not saying that The Atlantic is publishing lightweight fluff these days, but they aren’t publishing writing that assumes its audience to be so very highly educated and intellectually curious–to be, in short, able to read at this deep level. I, like you, feel an acute longing for the kind of concentrated reading I did in graduate school. I had no TV. Downloading a single email took about a half hour (using, interestingly enough, the prototype software “Eudora,” which was named as a kind of homage to Eudora Welty’s story “Why I Live at the P.O.”) I read and wrote and read and wrote. Now, I spend a great deal of my time reading “shallowly,” checking my emails, texting. I’ve completely gone astray here, vis-à-vis your question.
You reckon it has anything to do with the fact that I’ve gotten four emails since I began writing this? My question to you, then, is this: Why hasn’t the proliferation of MFA programs in the country corrected the downward trend in short story readership, or has it? Or do you believe, as some recent articles have suggested, that even the new generation’s young writers don’t really read?
Your question is fascinating. It begs the larger question of why MFAs have become so popular. From the perspective of academic institutions, the answer is simple: they make money. But why are they in such demand? My sense is that people feel — to a greater extent than ever before, and largely because of the distraction we’ve been discussing — lost and confused and alienated from their own internal lives. And they see writing as one way of going in search of themselves.
The question is whether they see reading as part of that process. And I’m really not sure. I was recently a visiting writer at a respected MFA program and on the first day of class, I urged the students to read Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation.” I was pretty emphatic about this, and I expected the students would do so. None of them did. They just didn’t have time to read a single twenty-page story! One of the finest ever written!
I don’t mean to extrapolate too much, but it feels symptomatic of a larger mindset: I’m here to write, not to read. I say all this as someone who doesn’t read nearly as much as I should.
Still, a lot of what I do as a teacher, and a writer, is to advocate for particular books and stories. And not just so that people become better writers. But because the sort of distraction we’re talking about is actually destructive to the species. It’s what allows the political and moral discourse of this country to become so impoverished, and our popular entertainments to be so histrionic and clichéd and violent.
I’ve gone off the deep end, too.
To answer your question more specifically: my own sense is that MFA programs do promote reading, and deep thought and feeling. All those folks who wind up at AWP each year: they represent an ever larger percentage of this country’s serious readers. The problem is that the number of folks who simply read for pleasure — by which I mean, they read short story collections for pleasure — has plummeted. Most of the folks who come to my readings are aspiring writers. The civilian reader is, I’m afraid, a dying breed. Not extinct, but endangered.
My own response to this (after the disconsolate weeping) is to adopt an evangelical attitude. That is: to spend a portion of my time as a writer/teacher spreading the gospel of reading.
We all need to preach that gospel, but needn’t we be preaching all the synoptic gospels? Reading deeply, writing deeply, speaking carefully, and listening carefully? Needn’t we preach the good word of all artful and ethical communication? That’s where we are, it seems to me, as I duck into my stole. We’ve reached an age in which the very bedrock of civil communication is being undermined by the fracking forces of commercial culture and resigned shallowness. But I’ve seen, in my own reading life, that the inattentiveness and distractedness borne of the Internet age can be reversed. We can rewire our brains to read deeply just as surely as many of us have wired them to read shallowly. I haven’t turned my cell phone off, but I have changed its settings so that I’m not bombarded by “pushed” data. I have a ways to go, but already I’m finding myself lost, and blissfully so, in reading that was beginning, a year ago, to prove difficult. I’m reading a biography of the friendship shared by Coleridge and Wordsworth. It’s big, and it spans decades, and it’s riddled by footnotes, and it’s fucking beautiful. When I force myself to put it down at night so that I can prolong the experience (and sleep), I find myself shaking my head at the very real possibility that I might have deprived myself of it. And you know what else…I’m reading more poetry and short stories than I had been in the past two years.