Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Attention Spans My Arse

In the U.K., they're celebrating "National Short Story Week". I wish we'd adopt the holiday across the pond.

One blogger posted: "It's a week to celebrate short attention spans!" (I've happily lost the link...sorry.)

Loving short stories has nothing to do with a short attention span. I'm sick of hearing it.

Here's what short stories can do (which you rarely find in "successful" longer fiction): they can push boundaries, take chances, and experiment. Each word becomes more important, every sentence a movement in the symphony, each paragraph a fist to the jaw. Yes, there are novels which do as much, but they seldom sell well. Novels are the commercial medium. That's their anchor, their curse.

It is my contention (based on several years of experience as a writer and reader) professional short fiction markets seek stories with grit, voice, and originality while the best selling novels are formulaic, trite, and easy on the brain.

Maybe it's the novels which cater to short attention spans...or, at least, simple minds?

Disagree? I'm glad you do. Let's hear it.

Edited to add: Read the wonderful "Principles of a Story" by Raymond Carver, one of my short story heroes.

13 comments:

shadowflame1974 said...

I don't think it has anything to do with attention span. I have avid reader friends who read mostly short stories and some who read mostly novels and a lot who read both.

With a short the reader has to understand that the author is only giving him/her 1,000, 5,000 or 10,000 words to dive into. While with a novel you have a much longer time to dig into plot, character, and scenes. In a novel (or series) the writer has lots of room to explore all of the areas that need to be explored and fixed. In a short there is just not enough to do everything, so the author has to chose what is the most important.

That in itself might be the deciding factor on who likes what kind of story. Short for those who want a hot shower; Novel for those who like a long hot bath.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Spooky. Here's the big coincidence of this post: I just spent ten minutes--not a half hour ago, mind you--reading a short story in your Tainted antho, and thinking about how it's a shame that more people don't read short stories. Weird.

Anyway, I totally agree...it's not an ADHD thing, and people who don't read short stories don't get that. It's not a weakness of character to like them, and it's not a shortcoming as a writer to create them. In some ways, on both counts, it can be harder. You don't have 300 pages to draw out characters and create empathy and paint a backstory. Those things have to be worked in with surgical accuracy.

The world would be a better place if the non-readers who lost sleep for days to consume the latest adventures of Edward and Bella, or Harry and Hermione, or even Robert Langdon, would spend a day or two once a year checking out a short story collection.

Brendan P. Myers said...

I don't think there need be any inherent conflict between the short story and longer fiction. After all, shouldn't a story should be only as long as it needs to be?

In terms of the "demise" of the short story, that's driven by simple economics, the demise of all those wonderful mass-market magazines that used to carry them into the households of America.

But I do recall a comment Stephen King made a few years ago while editing the annual "Great American Short Fiction" anthology (or whatever it's called.) He couldn't help but notice in his hunt for short fiction at the magazine racks of Borders or Barnes and Noble, that he had to bend his knees to find it -- all the short fiction magazines were on the bottom shelf.

At any rate, styles and lengths come and go. So many of the great horror or pulp "novels" of the forties and fifties -- by Matheson or Bradbury or Jim Thompson -- would hardly be considered novels today due to their short length and would no doubt not even find a publisher.

Think the answer might be, if you're looking for "success" in the writing field, measured by either readers or renumeration -- to write what people want to read. And if you find out what that is, lemme know, willya? (:>)

Martin Rose said...

I think your spot on in your comparison between what a short story has to offer verses a novel; and likewise, I think attention span has less to do with it all than one might think.

I think too, that while some people have a preference for novels the same way that, for instance, people prefer television series to movies is along the same rationale: one can delve more deeply into plot arcs and character development than a shorter medium. But, that being said, I think the problem with most of the mass produced, gag-inducing celluloid parading as books these days has a simpler motivation. Ever a read a book that could have been condensed into 30 pages? Or pick up a 400 page book that if it had been printed in 12 point Times New Roman instead of 16 point George could have been easily made half the size?

Here's the theory -- a major publisher can't justify putting you over the barrel by charging you $10 for a paperback book that's only 50 pages, so they need to bloat them unnecessarily to 600 page epics. As a result, the short story medium is seen as worthless because they can't attach an inflated price tag on a 10 page, tightly executed, competent story.

Just a theory. I could be wrong.

bradygolden.com said...

Maybe it's the novels which cater to short attention spans

I think I agree. An inattentive reader (re: me) can zone out while reading a novel, skip a paragraph or two, and you'll be alright. Can anyone honestly and truly say that they read and paid attention to every single word in War & Peace?

Skip sentence in a Raymond Carver story, on the other hand, and that thread is lost. Return to page one, paragraph one, and try again.

Aaron Polson said...

Sarah - I'll agree the reader has much to do with the form...but I'm not sure a number of "novels" warrant staying in the "bath" for long. I'm grumpy that way.

Jeremy - Well said. Well said.

Brendan - A story should be as long as it needs be...but the market controls a lot of it. Maybe digital publishing will change that. Maybe.

Martin - Market...market...market. I've put down too many books which were just too long for their subject matter lately.

Brady - Skip any Raymond Carver story, and you've missed out on a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Jenzarina said...

Totally agree!
Although awards such as the Booker Prize do often celebrate the more boundary-pushing novels. Sad thing is, though, novels often have to win these to be accepted by the wider public.

Katey said...

I'm honestly not sure what it is about us, as in this modern reader culture, that wants to belittle the short story. I've read an equal number of short stories and novels that have left a lasting impression on my feelings and thoughts--every subject and story has to be given the treatment necessary to bring that out. Short or long, whatever.

Attention span has sweet FA to do with it. Totally.

Cate Gardner said...

We have a National Short Story week??? Hanging my head in shame. I didn't know that.

Short attention span my ass. :D You can't drift off in a good short story, you'll miss something.

Aaron Polson said...

Jenzarina - And thank goodness for those awards. Hopefully, we can find other avenues...

Katey - FA! Ha! But yes. Absolutely. As for belittling the short form: novels better watch out...they'll be next on the list.

I think it's a fairly new thing, Cate. I learned about it via Twitter earlier this week.

Natalie L. Sin said...

As a big fan of "Off Season", I couldn't agree more. The publisher neutered the first version. Luckily, I read the good one. Blood, sex, and uncompromising tragedy intact!

Alan W. Davidson said...

You make a valid point about many novels being formulaic and trite. It's actually a bit insulting to hear it said that people turn to short fiction because they have short attention spans. Burn the withces! (oops, did I say that? I only meant to think it...)

Aaron Polson said...

Natalie - I need to pick up a copy. (Please don't boo me off stage...)

Alan - Witches? Where? (looks around, locks doors)