Monday, March 16, 2015
THE ECONOMY OF ECONOMY
The development and refinement of the short story in the early- to mid-century owes so much thanks to economics. A guy could make a nice little living selling fiction to magazines. The stuff didn't need to be good, either, and a lot of it wasn't. The short story was primarily entertainment, it's place in the home was the living room, where it would be gradually replaced by TV. The short fiction of the time, like its usurper, was a mix of junk and art, a venue where the best and the worst artists stretched their legs and stuffed their wallet.
I know we hate to talk about art's interactions with business, but it is an essential element to the short story's maturation. When given the incentive to write often and for as many marketplaces as possible, a writer is lured into territories they might otherwise eschew, an incentive that produced some of the most versatile voices of the century. Though he's responsible for some of the best generation-defining short fiction of the 20s, F. Scott Fitzgerald – thanks to financial straits – was compelled to write some of the best, weirdest genre fiction of the era. And Raymond Chandler, eventually considered one of the best presenters of a gritty, American moral bankruptcy, was attracted to the pulp fiction that would come define him almost solely because he could make a quick buck. And, of course, Kurt Vonnegut's teeth got cut working his way up from the sci-fi rags to the "slicks," and his revolutionary style a melange of his high and low experience.
But then there are writers, mostly relegated to the genre writer distinction, like Theodore Sturgeon (the basis for Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout, if you didn't know), Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison who could write any story for any venue. These were giants created and supported by their environment, who went on to thrive in and define various venues. Throughout their careers, they'd be putting out a new collection of short stories every few years, producing collected short fictions that would bow most bookshelves.
A notorious and lithe genre hopper, Jonathan Lethem has been publishing for about 25 years now. His novels range from western, sci-fi, detective, and straightforward social commentary. Recently, he published his third collection of short stories, Lucky Alan. I received these new stories with unbridled enthusiasm – they're as good as anything Lethem has done – but, a drop of ink in that pure milky glee, I can't believe that this is only Lethem's third collection. And each new book of short stories seems to be shrinking, and the range of publications they originally appeared in has likewise dwindled to mostly The New Yorker. It's a hypothetical shame, as Lethem has all the makings of those aforementioned masters. He's one of those rare writers who brings both a learned intelligence and a limitless imagination to his work. With the right impetus, he could be similarly publishing constantly, collecting the best of it consistently.
In 2012, Lethem put out the 500-page collection of non-fiction, The Ecstasy of Influence. This, in addition to a previous collection of non-fiction, as well as short studies of the film They Live and the album Fear of Music. The breadth of Lethem's interests is fully on display in Ecstasy, ably lillypadding from all manner of cultural subjects. It's a wonderful collection, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it also makes for something of a dousing rod, shivering in the direction of money.
No one's getting rich or anything, but this does shine a light on an interesting trend: creative non-fiction has been slowly moving into the magazine spaces once occupied by short fiction. It's odd to think that, if they were writing today, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be writing reviews of the new season of Girls, Raymond Chandler opining about Adam Sandler's place in Hollywood. There's no shortage of short story collections every year, a surprising amount of which are great. But they never seem to accrue to much. Few are the writers who stick with the short story long enough to really make it work. Names like Alice Munro, or Lorrie Moore, or George Saunders are exceptions. Few collections of short stories sell much, and there are few and fewer venues who pay well to publish individual ones. The conditions just aren't conducive to long burns.
In this a bad thing? Not necessarily. I love short stories probably more than the next guy, but it's hard to argue with the free market. The balance isn't always perfectly calibrated, but for the most part what gets published is what people want to read, what people will buy. But at the same time, I do get a little winsome thinking about alternate realities and alternate careers. I look at the three books of Jonathan Lethem's short fiction I've got on my shelf and wish that shelf drooped under the weight of more of them.