Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Toilets and Literature

I was using a friend’s toilet last week when I pleasantly discovered a book of Alice Munro stories propped up on the tank. Brilliant! I thought. Toilets and literature. Finally I was reading “Visitors,” and if it wouldn’t have caused my friend some nervous concern, I could have stayed in that bathroom and gotten to “The Moons of Jupiter.”

Since visiting other uncultured toilets, with many sighs of disappointment, I’ve wondered why not every household toilet has a Best American Short Stories propped up on the tank. Why don’t people read stories on the subway, or in line at the bank, instead of the novel they complain to have been reading since 1998? In short, why aren’t short stories more popular?

Cultural observers love to point at my generation and at modern America in general, noting our shorter attentions spans, high distractibility, and impatience with expression. Sometimes I’d like to break their fingers, but they have a point. More than ever, art and entertainment seem best absorbed in brief, easily ingestible chunks, whether as music videos or mp3s or favorite Sopranos episodes that can be skipped to on a DVD. Short stories, it seems, ought to be the hit singles of the literary world.

But perhaps I’m wrong to characterize short stories in this way. Good stories are “brief,” yes, but they’re not necessarily “easily ingestible chunks.” The best ones are actually robust as brick, and reading them requires the patience and appreciation of reading novels.

Filmmakers are realizing this truth. Recently a number of short stories have been adapted into full-length films, including Annie Proux’s “Brokeback Mountain,” Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” (with the film title Jindabyne), and Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (film title Away From Her). Perhaps the short story’s rise in popular culture will be driven by film.

I was hoping that while writing this post I’d conjure some huge and brilliant theory as to why short stories aren’t as popular as novels. I haven’t. So in the meantime I’ll be on the toilet, fantasizing about how to get short stories in every bus depot and waiting room in America. Missing Munro too? Her books look great against porcelain.

~Sonya Larson

10 comments:

five said...

Sonya,
I am enjoying everyone's blogs so much, but I must say, I think you win on this one for "Best First Sentence"!

So I'm wondering, will our house guests audit the offerings on our porcelin tank with the same critical eye as Man Clog's review of Whitney's bookcase? Oh, the pressure to impress!

Here's the selection currently available in our second floor bathroom: 1) Sports Illustrated for Kids 2) The Lacrosse Official's Handbook 3) Don't Wake Me at Doyles 4) How To Train Your Beagle 5)a brochure for Loyola Chicago

You are welcome to come over anytime if the selection is of any interest to you.

No literature in the third floor bathroom, but a beautiful cast iron, claw foot tub and a roof deck overlooking the city just beyond the window sill. I guess I could replace the towels in the shelf with literary works...what do you suggest?

Love the blog!

Mo

Sonya Schizzle said...

Oh Mo...you're the coolest. I will gladly come over and peruse "How to Train Your Beagle." Should Man Clog ever visit, kindly direct him toward "Don't Wake Me at Doyles" and the claw foot tub.

When will we see you again, oh Mo?

Dan said...

I used to have this book called Bibliotopia in the throne room, but I found that only book-dorks really enjoyed it. So I'm trying to find a suitable replacement, something for everyone – I'm thinking non-fiction.

Jane said...

I think the reason short stories aren't more popular in America is that they aren't short _enough_ .

To really appreciate a good short story you have to read it in one sitting. At least, you feel like you do. And this can take over an hour for a longer, more complex story. But a novel, you can take in bite by tiny bite -- just a few minutes, a page or two at a time if you like. Dip in and out, stop and start, put it down for a week, then pick it back up again. It's harder to do with a short story.

I'm not saying I think this makes novels "better," mind you; just perhaps more fitting, ironically, for today's short attention spans.

The Writers' Group said...

What a clever post, Sonya! I, too, am a huge fan of short stories, though I find them impossible to write. How some are able to write in both genres, I don't know. I attended a reading of Best American Short Stories 2006, jointly sponsored by Houghton Mifflin and PEN New England, and host Ann Patchett admitted she couldn't write a short story either. Imagine? BSS 2006 is probably the best collection in a long time. Paul Yoon is brilliant, Edith Pearlman (better than Alice Munro, really)spins magic. Truly inspired. I can't wait to read one of yours, Sonya.

Amy

The Writers' Group said...

Great post! We don't have books in our bathrooms, instead putting up shower curtains with (a) a map of the world -- quick, where is Kerguelen? -- and (b) clear plastic pockets into which we put gallery postcards of art we like but can't afford. I am inspired to look for tiny books to tuck in the pockets next to the toilet. Thank you!

Hannah

Diana said...

One reason short stories aren't too popular is that fiction reading on the whole is getting less popular. If people (avid readers and occasional readers alike) put in the effort to read fiction, they are more likely to choose a longer story that will allow them to escape for a while. My friend Amy, who devours books faster than I do, once said she "hated" short stories because once you get into the characters and the situation, the story ends.

Publishing houses, PR, and book clubs, however, can be critical in cultivating short story readership. Witness The Interpreter of Maladies: A first time author comes out with a short story collection. Short story collection wins Pulitzer Prize. Short story collection becomes the darling of book clubs and chain bookstores and indie bookstores alike.

If Oprah starts promoting more collections, America will have a short story renaissance.

Sonya Schizzle said...

Wow, such interesting comments all around! I feel like we'll have to revisit this topic once again. Jane points out a good irony: that perhaps longer stories are actually more digestible, since you can read them with "a la carte" timing. What Diana says about reading as an escape is fascinating too...and something I've always wondered about. Look to next week: let's talk Reading and Escape!

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