The dark appeal of the short story


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At the L.A. Times Festival of Books Saturday panel “Fiction: In Brief,” moderated by Mark Rozzo, the three panelists defended the short story’s morose appeal. Antonya Nelson, author most recently of the collection “Nothing Right” -- now there’s a depressing title -- said her students had been complaining for years that the short story brings them down, but it’s one of the aspects that draws her to reading and writing them.

Ron Carlson, who published the 2007 instructional, “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” thinks of the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” “Is that depression or dark bliss?” he asked. Depends on your temperament, your desire for traditionally resolute endings. Dark bliss is in the eye of the beholder.


“Alone with You” author Marisa Silver, who studied with Nelson, said that so much of the story is about what you don’t tell. Endings can be deceptive in the short story, maybe more than any other form. You reach the conclusion and realize the story was actually about something else.

Rozzo read a quote from Steven Millhauser’s contemplation of the short story in the New York Times. “The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature,” Millhauser wrote. “The novel is insatiable -- it wants to devour the world.... The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence.”

It’s exactly the novel’s giant, unwieldy quality that fills Nelson with dread whenever she’s had the misfortune to begin writing one (though they’ve all worked out quite nicely for her, it should be noted). Due to their size, the paralyzing sense of free form, the novel allows you to be sloppy, Nelson said.

The short story, often grounded in the lyrical moment as opposed to the narrative arc, can’t be a totally known thing. Silver said if you start a story and know exactly where it’ll wind up, something’s off.

Carlson seconded that notion: “You need to be a savage to write a story… writing is done in the dark.”

-- Margaret Wappler

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