Hornsby

Author Spotlight: Caroline Casper

Caroline Casper is a freelance writer of short fiction and nonfiction who also works as Head of Content for an academic digital magazine called Hippo Reads. She holds an MA in journalism and is currently working towards an MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. She is also working on a collection of short stories focusing on real women on issues of truth and authenticity, and women’s complicated relationships with loss, ageing, and objectification. She lives in San Francisco with her husband. Literary Roadhouse reached out to this up and coming writer to ask what motivates and inspires her.

Literary Roadhouse: Why do you write short stories?
Caroline Casper: I think I’m drawn to short stories because of my background in journalism—where the training forces you to tell a riveting story in a short amount of space. I also really like the creative process of short story writing…how themes develop from subconscious threads and connections you may not set out or “intend” to create. It seems to me that short stories allow room to meander and experiment with form, even if that experimentation is just an exercise. Sometimes I find it easier to find creativity in confinement of space.

Literary Roadhouse: Who are your favourite short story authors?
Caroline Casper: My favorite short story authors are Alice Munro, because she’s brilliant and I think her stories manage to mimic the complexities of humanity like no others—there’s so much happening off the page or below the surface—and she’s always doing fascinating things with plot; and Junot Diaz, whose short stories are fabulous. Lorrie Moore is also brilliant and always makes me laugh.

Eminence,” her first short story, was published in Carve Magazine in 2013 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Eminence” also won first place in the 2014 Story South Million Writers Award, as selected by a panel of judges.

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

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

 

In all seriousness, this is an amazing opportunity

I was friends (in as much as someone who only exists through the portal of a computer can be a friend) with Maya through the Self Publishing Podcast “Fiction Unboxed” Kickstarter campaign last year. Several of us followers of the project got together in a Hangout of our own, chatting about the project, the ideas, the story being being written in front of our eyes. Maya was one of the members of the Hangout.

I know she’s been fairly prolific with her own podcasts and hangouts since then, and I’ve had my own projects to keep me busy.

And then, on Twitter earlier this week, she Tweeted

Well, I thought I qualified on all three counts, so I contacted Maya. We chatted on Twitter & email, and an audition was set up for the following day.

I joined the audition Hangout, and met Anais, our co-host, for the first time. I answered the questions put to me truthfully and honestly (they’re not the same). We laughed. I gave them my opinion on literary shorts.

I must have done something right, because after a short time, I was offered the opportunity of joining Maya and Anais. I’m thrilled and excited, and can’t wait to help building the Literary Roadhouse into an exciting, informative and interesting podcast.

Gerald