BEA: Embracing the Short Story Panel

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A momentary lens malfunction (i.e., profound idiocy on my part) prevented me from taking usable photos of this panel.]

Moderator: Brigid Hughes
Participants: Charles D’Ambrosio, Kelly Link, John Freeman, Rick Simonson

It was with the wholly solipsistic intention of meeting D’Ambrosio and Link that I attended the Short Story panel. Not knowing that it was being moderated by Hughes, it was also a pleasant suprise to meet her too. Of course, due to slight time mismanagement on my end (clearly I’m not as circumspect as Sarvas on this score), I ended up getting in a little later than expected.

When I arrived, D’Ambrosio, dressed in a denim jacket if I am to believe my notes and my extremely exhausted memory banks, came across as the most talkative of the four. He frequently saw the short story’s future with the kids he was teaching, pointing out that a lot of his students were secretly writing novels.

Link pointed out that she grew up reading short story collections (particularly ghost stories) and that reading a short story collection all the way through very much informed her current writing. She said that she was shocked when she learned that people read short stories and felt that the writer needed to be stubborn enough to resist the impulse of workshops.

D’Ambrosio said that he won’t show his work to anyone and noted that writing was about being courageous enough to make mistakes. There is the danger of too much input.

Freeman cited an example from George Saunders, noting that Saunders’ description of lab cats dying in one of his short stories was something that couldn’t be tried in a novel and provoke the same feeling. There is a troubling closure in novels, where as a short story collection allows a writer to riff on a theme.

Simonson, a bookseller for the Elliott Bay Book Company, pointed out that book club peole never asked if Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was a series of stories or a novel. They simply accepted it as a work of fiction.

There was some discussion of whether trusted old dogs like John Cheever will still viable among today’s youth. D’Ambrosio pointed out that for some people, Cheever is new to them.

Hughes remarked that Link had insisted that an excerpt of “Origin Story” (her contribution to the first issue of A Public Space) be available online. Link noted that this was consistent with her desire to make a good deal of her stories available online. While more people have downloaded the stories than bought the book, she felt that this was a positive step.

When Hughes pointed out that literary agents went out of their way to avoid short story collections, Link noted that they can do well with short story collections. There is a niche audience. Many of the people that Link has met act as if they’re embarassed when they confess that they enjoy short story collections. Simonson added that he’s observed people reading around in small presses, forming a hunter-gatherer society of their own.

D’Ambrosio pointed out that there was a considerable advantage with short story collections because you don’t really need an agent. Simonson confessed that he felt uncomfortable with the idea of providing short stories for free online, feeling that it’s a bit like downloading music for free.

There was some conversation about pulp and whether or not it’s a bad thing. Hughes confessed that she had prejudices about picking up books in the science fiction section and wished that “she had known about certain authors,” but Link remarked that she rejected the literary vs. nonliterary label.

D’Ambrosio remarked that his parents were “not literary people,” but they had Updike and Cheever in their libraries

Link said that anyone interested in seeing tomorrow’s voices should subscribe to many magazines, since, with the constant rollover of issues, it’s easy to miss the good stuff.

At the close of the panel, while I didn’t share a drink with D’Ambrosio, I did find him to be a thoughtful and personable guy. I also discovered the extremely hilarious manner in which he had stumbled upon my blog, which you’ll have to ask me about in person. Let’s just say that I’m indebted to a party who shall remain unnamed who filled in the missing details.

As for Link, she too was generous, although a tad overextended. But I did get a chance to talk with her a little bit over dinner on Saturday night with the so-called speculative fiction/litblogging cadre. At that same dinner, Jeremy Lassen, upon learning that I had not only procured but read the UK edition of Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, unleashed one of the most energetic solilioquys I’ve ever seen about the publishing industries, getting so worked up that he allowed his dinner to get cold. (He also demonstrated some delightfully impish effrontery by heading straight into the PGW party and declaring himself “VIP” while a line clamored well up the street. Hopefully, I’ll hook up with him soon. I learned also that he’s operating out of San Francisco.) The nice thing about the Short Story panel crowd, compared with some of the more pompous and less self-effacing authors I saw strutting their wares on the floor, was that the Lassen/D’Ambrosio/Link crowd, to my eye, had genuine passion about the craft and importance of writing that transcended the literary-genre debate that’s quite the rage with the snobs these days.

It’s not about the business or the labels. It’s the writing, stupid.

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