In his Gakwer post, “‘Writer of Our Time’ George Saunders Needs to Write a Goddamn Novel Already,” Adrian Chen argues that, “Fairly or not, the novel is the Super Bowl of fiction writing, and any fiction writer who hasn’t written one is going to be relegated to runner-up in the annals of literary history.” Chen, who seems to love Saunders and his stories, appears to have written the piece because he wants Saunders to get the respect he deserves. But what he actually does is fall right in line with all the people—everyone, it seems—who fetishize the novel to its peril, and at the expense of outstanding stories and collections. By cheering for Saunders to write something big and become a “person we force every grade school student to read,” and by assuming that Saunders must “really want to write a novel,” he’s contributing to a problem that deeply hurts short story writers, and is condescending all the while.
It’s not that Chen’s wrong—short stories writers are always the runners-up, and that’s why it’s so exciting that Saunders is getting so much attention for Tenth of December. Maybe he can change the game. Maybe he can win it.
Novels aren’t better or more impressive than short stories. People—usually people who don’t write fiction, but also self-congratulatory novelists and literary critics—think they are because novels are bigger, and, like children, these people gravitate to the biggest, shiniest objects and assume they’re the most important ones. They’re wrong, and we need people like Saunders (and Deborah Eisenberg and Amy Hempel) to show that a strong story collection can be just as important and impactful as novel.
Chen notes that, “That George Saunders hasn’t written a novel isn’t for lack of trying. The only thing normal about George Saunders’ writing career is that he’s still an aspiring novelist, just like you and I were for those few moments when we got bored of TV. In a recent conversation with his editor Andy Ward, Saunders revealed that three of the stories in his new collection started as novels ‘until they came to their senses,’” and says that “That seems to be the definition of ‘novel’ for me: a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief.”
“Even Saunders must get at least a little less serene when he realizes his novel is turning into yet another Goddamn Short Story, again,” Chen says. Really? Why must he? Not everyone wants to write a goddamn novel.
One of the reasons Saunders is such a good writer is that he listens to his stories and he does right by them. Brevity is challenging, and it keeps you honest. If these novels came to their senses and realized they’re short stories, the right thing happened. They became what they were supposed to be. Who the hell wants to read a novel that is a novel only because the writer felt they needed to write one? Not me. I read novels all the time and think, eh, should have been a short story.
Denis Johnson’s story collection Jesus’ Son could win the Super Bowl any day of the week, and when he received the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke, a lot of people said that he was really getting it for Jesus’ Son, much the same way that Al Pacino got an Oscar for Scent of a Woman because “the Academy” finally realized he should have gotten one… for every one of his performances except that ridiculous one. Jesus’ Son is one of the best collections ever written, and is certainly the best thing Johnson’s ever written, so who cares if he also wrote novels? That shouldn’t make him more important or respected. Jesus’ Son should be enough.
This is a touchy subject for me: I am a short story writer with no plans to write a novel. I also write non-fiction, and screenplays, but no one cares. All anyone asks when I say that I’ve had some short stories published is, “How’s your novel going?” Then I have to explain that I’m not writing a novel and these people, who are typically not writers and know nothing about writing, get all huffy and condescending and imply, if not directly state, that I’m not really a writer because real writers write novels. And when they inevitably get on me about how I have to write a novel (often they mention the thriller they’ve been writing in their head for years—I think to make me feel bad?) I just stare at them and think, “Why would I spend years of my life slaving over a project just to do it, just to have said I have done it, or to legitimize myself in your eyes? Why would I write something that doesn’t need to be written?” I’ll leave that task to the majority of people who are trying to write novels as I write this and some obtuse pieces of fiction.
This year, I am publishing my fourth short story with NOON, which you’ve probably never heard of but is a great publication, and one I’m very proud to be in. My stories in NOON are short—they’re so short that some people might roll their eyes at me for calling them stories. But some other people really like them. Some of these people are agents, and every time NOON comes out I get an email or two saying, “We absolutely loved your short story, can you please send us 50 pages of your novel manuscript?” I politely email back and say, “Thank you. I am not working on a novel, but here are 50 pages of short stories.” I immediately get a response saying, “While we adore short stories and like your writing, we can’t sell collections, so maybe start writing a novel already and get back to us.”
I’m not not writing a novel on purpose, to prove a point, or anything like that. I’m not writing a novel because I don’t have one to write right now, and I know way too much about writing to start a project just because. It’s not a fear of length—I’m polishing two feature length scripts and am 50,000 words into a non-fiction project. I can put in the time and the effort. I’m writing many different stories in various formats, and I will be happy if they entertain people at least briefly, though of course I hope they will linger with readers and make them think. So I am writing many things, but none of them are a novel, and that doesn’t mean anything unless you make it mean something, and honestly, I’m not sure why you care so much.
Chen writes that, “The excessive praise heaped on great short fiction writers begins seem patronizing at a point, like an out of town guest struggling to compliment a New Yorker’s cramped and overpriced apartment: ‘Look how much you’ve done with so little space!’”
Chen is the one being patronizing and giving a terrible backhanded compliment by trying to protect poor old George Saunders and encourage him to hunker down and write that novel so people actually respect him. Oh please. We should all be thrilled at the praise he’s receiving because he is so deserving, and it’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, short story collections are finally being elevated to the status they deserve. Game on.