Episode Archives

How Short is a Short Story?

Here on the Literary Roadhouse, we’re all about short stories. There are two good reasons for this:

1) they are a wonderful form of literature, forcing tight storytelling and encouraging powerful imagery

2) they ensure we (as well as our audience) can read the stories each week for the podcast.

But what do we mean by a short story?

DEFINITIONS

As writers, when we create a piece of fiction, we are aware of the length categories into which stories fall. There are no specific rules on story lengths. There are several ‘conventions’, but there is no strict agreement.

Let’s look at the stories we’ve chosen so far:

Week 1: The Story of an Hour – Kate Chopin – 1,103 words

Week 2: The Cheater’s Guide To Love by by Junot Diaz – 9,343 words

Week 3: The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges – 2,201 words

Week 4: Eminence by Caroline Casper – 4,827 words

So, we’ve already chosen a pretty wide variation, but they all fall below 10,000 words, which is approximately equivalent to 30 pages of a novel. That’s not to say that we can’t choose a story above that – these things are flexible.

But the best definition of a short story has nothing to do with word counts or pages. It’s from Edgar Allen Poe – “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression”.

ARE SHORT STORIES ANY GOOD?

Can you tell a complete story in such a few words? Many readers of novels would say that you can’t, and that you need the length of a novel to tell the complete story and fill out the characters.

Ernest Hemingway, a real master of the short fiction form, responding to a challenge, wrote an infamous 6-word short story:

For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

— ~Hemingway

In just six words, there is a complete story, a sad story. It is inexplicit, subtle, but perfectly formed.

Someone on Reddit asked for a good horror story in two sentences. The one which was by far the best is linked in the references at the bottom (the actual text is copyright). Only forty-four words, and an intriguing and damned scary story.

In truth, most of the best short stories extend well into beyond a thousand words. There is a school thought that a writer can’t produce a quality literary short story with fully-rounded characters and intriguing themes and all the things which make short stories great in less than a thousand words. Reaching for the nearest Best American Short Stories from my shelf (a quality, annual collection of literary short fiction), I estimate that the average length of each of the twenty stories contained therein is around 5,500 words.

So, where does that leave us? How short (or long) is a short story?

It’s the same, whatever label you want to attach to it: it’s as long as it needs to be to tell the story in a compelling way.

References:

http://www.betterstorytelling.net/thebasics/storylength.html
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/length.shtml
Reddit Story
http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm

The Circular Ruins – Jorge Luis Borges – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 3

Discussion Notes: The Circular Ruins

Next week’s story is Eminence by Caroline Casper

This podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher and podcatchers. If you can take a few moments to leave an iTunes and/or Stitcher review, it would help us immensely.

On today’s episode, we had a great discussion of The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luís Borges. This story proved divisive, in many ways highlighting how each of us views reality though our personal experiences and beliefs. It was also our first translated story. Make sure you listen to this episode if you haven’t already. The crazy messy version is on the Youtube page, and the glistening audio version will be available by morning.

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” For last week’s story, you gave “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Diaz 3.6 Bradberries.

On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “The Circular Ruins”? Tell us in the comments and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is Eminence by Caroline Casper.  This is our first Pushcart Prize nominee! The Pushcart Prize is an American literary award by Pushcart Press that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year.

We hope you’ll enjoy the read and join us next Tuesday for the live discussion. The podcast will be available on iTunes and other podcatchers by Wednesday morning.

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The Cheater’s Guide to Love – Junot Diaz – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 2

Discussion Notes: The Cheater’s Guide to Love

Next week’s story is The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luís Borges.

First, a quick than you for all the support we’ve received since going live. The podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher and Podcatchers. If you can take a few moments to leave an iTunes and/or Stitcher review, it would help us immensely.

On today’s episode, we had a great discussion of The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. Surprisingly the story left each of us conflicted in different ways. Hashing out what we liked and what left us wanting proved to be an interesting conversation. What did you think of the story? Were you like Maya and Kenechi, who enjoyed the story more than the style? Or did you love the artistry like Anais and Gerald, but found the story and characters lacking?

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” For last week’s story, you gave “The Story Of an Hour” by Kate Copin 4.2 Bradberries.

On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “The Cheaters Guide To Love”? Tell us in the comments and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luís Borges.  We hope you enjoy the read and join us next Tuesday for the live discussion. The podcast will be available on iTunes and other podcatchers by Wednesday morning.

Can’t wait til the morning for a podcast? Subscribe by Email

“Because I liked it” — a legitimate critique?

If I reviewed a story and my conclusion was that the book was good, because I liked it, would that be enough for you? I’m guessing the answer is no, but before we dismiss the notion entirely, let’s pause for a moment and actually delve deeper into the question. Is saying something is good (or bad) because you liked it (or disliked it) a legitimate critique? Well, of course the answer lies in what we mean by legitimate critique. I’m not going to go to official definitions here but let’s start with critique.

Let’s start by defining critique as an evaluation of the merits and shortcomings of something — its good and bad points. In this sense, saying that you like something is not a critique at all. However, saying that it’s good could be viewed as a critique, if albeit a very limited one. The decision  to assess something as good or bad needs you, at the very least, to determine that it has good points that you like, or bad points that you do not like, for whatever reason. This in itself is an evaluation of sorts.

Now, legitimate: what would make something a legitimate critique? This is a bit harder, because different people will give you a different response. Some people will flat out tell you that you need more justification than your own personal preference for a critique to be legitimate; that your own preference is simply biased. I ask those people, what isn’t biased? And is bias inherently a bad thing? For example, my friend has exactly the same taste in books as I do — if she tells me something is good, I’m more likely to take her word for it than the word of a professional critic, or someone giving a more ‘impartial’ analysis. I know her, and I can vouch for her taste, biased as it may be. It’s biased in the right direction—towards me.

Often, when we say legitimate, what we’re really alluding to is whether the critique is actually good. I say that despite being legitimate, this particular critique is not good. In order for a critique to be good it needs to have something backing it up other than the critic’s own personal preferences. Let’s say, for example, that before you can call a story good you have to examine its use of various narrative structures and tools, its pacing, the depth of its characters, etc. Let’s say that two different critics examine all these things in one story, and at the end of it they come to opposite conclusions. Critic A praises the author’s use of certain narrative tools, whereas Critic B derides the use of these same tools. So what does this say? That one critic has a better understanding than the other when it comes to critical analysis? Perhaps, but before we allow ourselves to venture down that road, let’s remind ourselves that we are talking about art here. Not science, art. What may be good and enjoyable for one person, is not for another.

I’m sure some of you can already see what I’m getting at here. If we break it down, the difference between two people’s opinion of  a work as good or bad can come down to the differences in preferences of those two people; essentially because they liked/didn’t like the story. What I’m alluding to, in a really roundabout way, is that with art, unless you’re critiquing the specific merits of something, for example, character development or depth of plot, an evaluation of something is often about how much the person evaluating it likes it or not. Often, works that are considered good are those that a lot of people like, and works that are considered bad are those that hardly anybody likes.

So let’s come back to the question of whether or not because I liked it is a legitimate critique or not. Technically that critique is legitimate, but also piss-poor and lazy. It conveys nothing about the merits of a story, but it is legitimate. But I think most people don’t want to settle for legitimate; they want to be good. To do that, you can build from the very legitimate reaction of “I liked it” and strengthen it with critical analysis — why did you like it? Tell me that, and that’s both a legitimate and good critique.

Kenechi

What Is Literary Fiction, and When Did It Become Popular?

These days, the boundaries between genres is blurred, yet, one type of fiction stands out—literary fiction. Although difficult to define absolutely, it is nevertheless important to be able to identify it and track its course through the history of writing.

Here are some definitions which might work:

  1. They are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.
  2. Literature is writing of high quality, sustained by intelligent structure and informed by original thought. It requires integration of all the elements into an intellectually and emotionally satisfying whole. Trickiest of all: it has to say something.

CC Ruminatrix no changes made CC Ruminatrix no changes made

One definition I like is that literary fiction is work that would be read “in college English classes” as opposed to “the grocery checkout line.” Literary fiction, to me, needs the reader to make some effort into understanding everything the author is trying to convey. The story isn’t laid out in simple chronology, a sort of ‘this follows that which follows the other’ style. It isn’t about solving a problem.

See what I mean about it being difficult to define?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered to be the first great work of literature, and dates from around 2100BC. The epic poem was based on Sumerian tales, and was later recorded on stone tablets,the oldest known belonging to the Babylonians in 1800BC. .Thus this tale became a written story ready to inspire others.  Many later writings, including those recorded by Homer, were based on the Epic of Gilgamesh.

You can see how writing down the Epic of Gilgamesh influenced later stories. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey date from around the 8th century BC, long after the creation of Gilgamesh. In these early days, literature was often seen as disruptive and divisive, and many texts were destroyed. Many ancient texts were destroyed when the Library of Alexandria was accidentally destroyed in the 1st century BC.

But in contemporary times, when we talk about literary fiction, we’re referring to the type that can be mass consumed. Mass consumption of literature was made possible by Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455. This allowed books to move from the possession of the select, and rich, few, to a mass market. William Caxton was the first British printer, and his first product was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1478 – a book comprising 20 individual stories, each told from the perspective of one of the pilgrims in the story. This could be construed as one of the first pieces of literary fiction to be made available to a mass market.

The novel struggled to gain a reputation. Its competitors were travel books, memoirs, biographies and the like. Novels were frowned upon, much as ‘chic-lit’ or ‘romance’ might be frowned upon nowadays, as not being ‘proper’ writing. That changed with the publication of Middlemarch by George Elliot, in 1872, cited as the first novel you didn’t have to be embarrassed about reading. “Popular fiction” was born.

Over the next several decades, writing and publishing became a boom business. Novels, and writing generally, began to be categorised into genres. It helped bookstores, and ultimately, it helped book buyers, too. This is something which continues to this day.

It wasn’t until 1924 that Virginia Woolf complained that: “The big-time novelists have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business.” For the first time, an author wanted to distance themselves from popular literature and create a ‘higher level’ of fiction writing. From the New Yorker: “In reaction, they created a different kind of literature: one centred on inwardness, privacy, and incommunicability.”

And thus, literary fiction as a single, semi-definable, category was created.

Away from novels, short fiction had always held the title of ‘literary’. The art of being able to tell a full story in few words necessitated some work on the part of the reader; allegory, analogy, symbolism, and metaphor are all used to create a ‘picture’ in the reader’s mind. Early masters of the form in the 19th century were Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, Jack London and Franz Kafka. Into the 20th century, writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov excelled at their art. More modern writers to look for are John Cheever, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, and Raymond Carver. Contemporary literary short fiction writers such as Malcolm Bradbury, Gita Mehta, Martin Amis, Colm Toíbin, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson and Peter Carey ensure the continuing popularity of the category.

But with the opening up of the publishing world to self and independent publishers, the strict genre classifications have morphed and blended. When it seems that there is a genre for every taste out there, does literary fiction still have a place in our modern society?

Well, of course it does! The market for short, literary fiction used to be limited to literary and art magazines, and an occasional anthology. Fixed printing costs meant that short-run literary works were expensive to produce, and had difficulty reaching a larger market. We now have ebooks, which cost nothing to print, and can cost nothing to produce, which opens the market wide. What we’re trying to do here on the Literary Roadhouse is to bring accessible literary fiction to that wider market.

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_fiction
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_literature
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh
http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/22/genre-fiction-literary-centre-anita-mason
http://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/better-way-think-genre-debate

 

The Story Of an Hour by Kate Chopin – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 1

Discussion Notes: The Story Of an Hour

Next week’s story is ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’ by Junot Diaz.

For the inaugural episode of Literary Roadhouse we got to know our hosts, and then had an exciting discussion about the definition of literary fiction. During the episode, we referenced a blog post that Gerald wrote, so make sure to check out that amazing read here.

Because many listeners wouldn’t have had time to read the story before the first taping, Maya read the story aloud and then we had a ruckus debate that touched on power, marriage and feminism. “The Story Of an Hour” may be over a hundred years old, but we all agreed that it felt modern and stood the test of time. What did you think of this weeks story?

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “The Story Of an Hour”? Tell us in the comments and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Diaz.  We hope you enjoy the read and join us next Tuesday for the live discussion. The podcast will be available on iTunes within a few days.

Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries

Let’s talk Ray Bradbury. You have likely heard of him. If you’re American, there is a good chance you read his novel Fahrenheit 451, or the Cliffnotes thereof (I’m onto you), in highschool – or kindergarten, if you went to private school. You may recall that the title refers to the auto-ignition point of paper where it catches fire without being exposed to an external flame. You were also probably taught that the book is about government censorship, and that Bradbury wrote this book in the early 50s in response to McCarthy era book banning.

That interpretation makes sense if you ignore everything Bradbury had said since the late 1950s. Shortly after the book’s release in 1953, Bradbury reinforced this interpretation in several interviews about the book, but in the late 1950s, his comments regarding Fahrenheit 451 became more nuanced.

His real purpose in writing the book, he insisted, was to warn readers about an illiterate society infatuated with mass media. Indeed, in the book, earbuds come between Mildred and Montag in their marriage. The government only begins censorship after society has abandoned books in favor of other types of media.* Bradbury stressed his concern that other types of media would replace books. Sound familiar?

Bradbury is decrying censorship, but he blames society for letting it happen. Don’t let Ray Bradbury down. He even wrote 27 books and over 600 short stories just for you.

Six. Hundred.

You take that number and then you go over it, and that’s how many short stories Ray Bradbury wrote. Here’s a list. Notice how the Wikipedia page dedicated solely to Bradbury’s short stories is listed as incomplete.

From now on I am going to rate all short stories on a scale of 1 to 6 Bradbury’s. Bradberries? Someone, anyone, please design for me a type of berry (raspberry?) with Ray Bradbury’s face imposed on it. I will use this berry to judge all other short stories.

Right, this post has a point. Well, now there are two actually.

1. Fahrenheit 451 is talking about us, more than it’s talking about the government. Don’t let Bradbury’s dystopia come true.

2. If you don’t read more stories, I will award you zero Ray Bradberries. Zero.

*Don’t remember this? Fahrenheit 451 is only 159 pages long. It’s worth a reread (or a first read).

Anais

You Can Read Better Despite a Low Attention Span

When I tell people that I’m a slow reader, I imagine they assume I’m not smart or well read. None of this is true. In fact, I was a fast and voracious reader until college. After that, my reading of fiction took a nose dive and the type of reading I did changed. Instead of reading stories, I was reading non-fiction and scientific journals. When college ended and I first picked up a novel, I found reading extremely difficult.

I wondered if my brain was broken, as it jumped all over the page. I set aside my well-loved classics, and read young adult fiction. Not because it was lesser, but rather, the fast pace of the plots, constant action and simple sentence structure allowed me to read faster. I actually think this is part of the popularity of YA for adults. Lots of story to keep a TV, Internet and cellphone-trained mind focused; Michael Bay on paper has its benefits. The problem was: I didn’t actually like most of those books so eventually I stopped reading all together.

I’d discovered the first truth in reading and comprehension. It was a truth I would understand more fully when selling reading programs to families of kids who were either slow readers or had ADD. Often when you read something and the words make no sense, it’s because you are reading too slowly for your brain to process the ideas behind the words. If you’ve ever helped a kid sound out a word, you’ll understand this idea. If the word is really hard and takes too long to sound out, the kid will often have no idea what the word meant after spending all their energy trying to make it sound right. So, if you are reading each individual word independently and slowly, then the words don’t link up right in our brains and bam… a paragraph goes by and you have no idea what you read. This goes for everyday people, people who sub-vocalize and yes, people with ADD.

Here are the tools I used to enjoy fiction again

Read every day – Reading is like a muscle and the more you read the better reader you will be. This is why many attorneys or new grads suddenly struggle with fiction. They are just out of practice after years of reading detailed non-fiction which is a very different type of reading. The best way to fix this is to read a lot of fiction, but reading six hours on Saturday will have a much smaller effect than reading an hour a day. It is the constant flexing both of the reading skill and the skill of focusing that will improve your comprehension and ability to stay sitting with a book in hand.

Start small – So you want to read an hour a day but you haven’t read fiction for weeks or maybe months. Setting that timer for an hour may be a quick road to failure. When I began running, I used a program that took me from walking to running in tiny increments. In my opinion, becoming a better reader is best approached the same way. Start with ten minutes if you have to, then move it to 15 when that feels easy and like a daily habit. Then 20 and so on. Starting small also goes with the material you choose. If you are only able to focus for 15 minutes a day, Middlesex is going to feel like drudgery and it may take months to feel that first taste of success. This is one of the reasons, Literary Roadhouse focuses on short stories. They are complex and interesting for seasoned readers of literary fiction, while being accessible and non-threatening for people who haven’t read literary fiction for a long time if at all.

Finish what you read – Abandoning books works well for seasoned readers but if you have a hard time focusing, you may find great books… boring. Eventually abandoning an irritating book will be fine, but at first… choose shorter books and finish them. Train your brain to look forward to the end of a good book. When I read Orlando, the first two chapters were pure torture, the language was hard. I had to read much of it aloud but about halfway through my head adjusted to the word jazz on the page and I had one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life. Had I set the book down during the first two chapters, my life would be less rich for it.

Quiet but not too quiet – Mama was right. Our brains can’t focus well will lots of noise, but she was too strict. If a room is too quiet, I often find my brain jumping all over the place and antsy. We have trained our brains to focus on many things at once. It needs stimulation or it just bounces. ADD makes that even more pronounced. Same with folks who play a lot of videos games or watch a lot of TV. So while you need quiet, you also need something to keep your brain humming. My solution is to play music without lyrics, classical concerto’s, movie scores and the like. Hans Zimmerman is great for reading. So is Chopin, Tchaikovsky and the rest. Find suites that aren’t overly intense (cello concertos are for the win) and you may find it easier to focus on the page.

Read aloud – Yep, remember what I said about the first time I read Orlando by Virginia Woolf? This is how I solved the problem of language that is too difficult to read fast enough to process. By reading aloud, I am allowing more parts of my brain to do some heavy lifting. In addition, for some pieces, I can enjoy the musicality of language better. There is a reason many people say that poetry must be read aloud. For some books, there is nothing better.

Train your eyes – Stop looking back… no seriously! Try this for a moment, time yourself reading a page. Then time yourself again while putting paper over the lines you’ve already read. We spend a lot of time re-reading without actually realizing it. It’s fine to go back if you need to, but train yourself to make it a choice rather than letting your subconscious drive your eyes around all willy nilly.

Audio Books – Audio books are still books. I hate this idea that they are somehow less than “reading.” They actually take longer to finish and they are great for drives to work or a good walk. I love audiobooks, but in addition to fun, they are a great tool if you are out of the habit of reading. Audiobooks get you used to absorbing stories that aren’t attached to a screen. I find that when I listen to a lot of audiobooks, I actually pick up paper books more often. So don’t belittle or feel embarrassed, audio books rule and no one can tell me otherwise.

Acceptance – There is nothing wrong with being a slower reader. Sure, we may see friends or Booktubers reading 5 books a week, but are they better? No. What is best is learning to enjoy reading and embracing a long lost love of the story. I am glad that I slowed down. Between Middle school and my 20’s I’d read Anna Karenina at least six times. I read it fast and enjoyed the story more than anything else to that point. Then I read it years later, as a slower reader and found that the book changed. The language felt richer and I saw things in the story I hadn’t seen earlier just because I had more time with the book. Just as Mortimer J Adler teaches in his opus, How to Read A Book, there are different types and levels of reading. The truly great reader can perform at all levels and will read differently depending on the type of reading they are doing. Your goal should never be just to read more or faster… the goal in my opinion should be to read better.

The First Story is: Drumroll Please

The story we’re discussing for the first episode is, The Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin. You’ll still enjoy the episode if you don’t read it, but you will enjoy it even more if you participate and get ahead of spoilers. Here’s a link to read the story for free.

February 3rd at noon PST 8pm GMT will be the first live recording for Literary Roadhouse. To watch live follow this link and add a reminder. The audio only episode will be available on this website a couple hours after recording. Because of the way iTunes works it may take anywhere from a couple days to weeks for our podcast to be approved, but it will be available on iTunes, Stitcher and all the rest as soon as I can arrange it.

A Note From Our Final Co-host

First of all, I want to give a big thank you to Maya for thinking of me to be a part of the Literary Roadhouse, and also to Anais and Gerald for making me feel a welcome part of the team. I haven’t known any of them for long, but it feels like I have, and I’m happy with the rapport that we’ve already established; it will only get better.

I’m happy you’re here too, yes you, our listeners, our readers, our fellow comrades on this new and exciting journey. Just one story has the power to grip you and transport you to another world; to a place unknown, unfamiliar but exciting. Think then of, with one short story a week, all the places we can go to, the author’s minds that we can glimpse into, and better yet, the fact that we have somewhere to share that experience with other lovers of fiction, here at the Literary Roadhouse. I’m looking forward to seeing other people’s reactions to the stories we read, to hearing thoughts different from my own and learning about how different parts of stories influence different people in different ways. I’m looking forward to hearing from you, hearing your thoughts and feelings about the stories we encounter or about fiction in general. Most importantly, I’m looking forward to encouraging people to read more, especially those people who haven’t yet had the experience of picking up, reading and enjoying a really good book, one that teaches them something new or leaves them with lingering emotions that have the power to affect their lives even after they’ve finished with the story. Because fiction is a beautiful thing, and it’s great to have the opportunity to share it with people who may be missing out. So really, this is all just to say a big hello to all of you, and to let you know that I’m looking forward to starting this journey.

Kenechi