The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 1

Letter to the Reader

by William Kennedy

The arrival of Zoetrope: All-Story must seem like a great gift to aspiring fiction writers at a time when short fiction is the shrinking child of the magazine world. I remember when more than a dozen major magazines published two or three short stories every issue, and even if you never sold your story to any of them, you could at least fantasize about the possibility. Then magazines died and the possibility diminished seriously. But writing fiction didn't change.
      There are two kinds of fiction writers: those who write long and those who write short. Those who write long do so because they don't know when to stop, and they tend to turn into novelists. Those who write short, and prefer it, turn into Anton Chekhov or John Cheever or Isaac Babel, if they have genius, and for whom we are as grateful as we are for Tolstoy and Melville, genius marathoners who sometimes wrote short, but who's measuring?
      Beginners write short, so do people with brief attention spans, and poets. William Faulkner thought genuine writers were driven by demon and fire to write, and if they were fortunate they did it as poets; the less fortunate did it as short-story writers, and the least fortunate had to go back to "the clumsy method of Mark Twain and Dreiser."
      There are two other types of fiction writers: those who create beginnings, middles, and endings, and those who create only middles, also known as slices of life, or pastramis. There are also two kinds of magazine editors who match with these types, but pastramis are not so popular anymore and neither are the magazines or editors who used to publish them.
      There is one other kind of fiction writer: the short-story writer whose characters nag the reader after the story is over. What will become of those people? A friend of mine got sick of being asked this question and wrote a second story that became chapter two of his remarkable first novel.
      Such writers sometimes send these novel fragments off to the few magazines that still publish fiction, but if the editors discover that these fragments are part of a novel, they will explain to the writer that readers do not want to read novel fragments in my magazine, even though readers have been reading novel fragments in magazines for two centuries; just as these same editors used to think readers were panting to read pastramis. Both of these editorial decisions are as much a consequence of fashion trends as the widening and narrowing of neckties; but fashion has nothing to do with literature, or good storytelling, and it's a pity some editors think it does.
      Finally, there is one other kind of fiction writer: the one who writes sideways. Samuel Beckett often wrote sideways, as did James Joyce. Henry James and Edith Wharton never wrote sideways. I have a very talented friend who wrote twenty-five or so sideways stories and then died. She saw three of her stories published, and was buoyed by this, but hers was largely a career of rejection. Three more of her stories have recently appeared in print, and I have faith that a book of her stories will eventually be published. Faulkner did not jump into the Mississippi when editors rejected his stories. He waited and in time all his rejected stories were published, including some he might not have approved of publishing if he hadn't been dead. I once wrote a story entitled "The Meaning of the Basketball in Her Dreams," and an editor rejected it because he didn't understand the meaning of the basketball. I changed the title and published it elsewhere. But you can see that this business of writing stories is full of pitfalls.
      There is only one way to leap over pitfalls and to get rid of bothersome editors and to overcome the failure of aspiration when you are a fiction writer. "You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet." So suggests Franz Kafka, and who am I to disagree?