Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

More About Manuscript Length As A Function Of Cast Size

I heard an NPR interview with Don DeLillo today about his new collection of short stories.

The interviewer observed that most of the pieces in this collection were about "isolation and solitude." Well, yes, DeLillo said, because they're short stories, and you can't have more than one or two important characters in that form. In order to keep it short, you must isolate your characters.


Now, I've absorbed enough mainstream creative writing seminar stuff to know that you need to stay focused on just one or two characters if you want your short story to be luminous, potent, whatever. I'd never heard anyone say, though, that the almost inevitable result is isolation as a theme. It's probably not a coincidence that DeLillo is best known for his big sprawling novels with ensemble casts. Usually the people who end up teaching those creative writing courses on short fiction are short fiction specialists, the people least able to articulate the problems short fiction poses for readers and novelists who favor a bit of sprawl.

The interview reminded me immediately of this cool review of a collection of Lovecraft stories that Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) wrote a few years back. Every time I have tried to read H.P. Lovecraft, I have found the unintentionally hilarious purple prose so distracting that I couldn't really get why anybody liked him. Handler's initial reaction is like mine, but he persists and gets somewhere completely different:

It is here, however -- perhaps 50 pages into this 800-plus page anthology -- that something begins to shift, and what was supposed to be sublime (but is actually ridiculous) becomes something that was supposed to be ridiculous, but is actually sublime. Part of this is simply getting accustomed to so melodramatic a prose style, but there is also, undeniably, a cumulative emotional weight. One hysterical narrator is off-putting; four is a running gag; but 22 is something else entirely, and over the course of this collection -- well chosen by Peter Straub -- Lovecraft's credo becomes quite clear. Arguably, the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind isn't fear. The first emotional state, if you consult the Bible, appears to be loneliness. After a day naming the animals, Adam is willing to give up one of his brand-new ribs for a little companionship, and the heroes of Lovecraft stories are similarly bereft. [...] If you spend enough time in Lovecraft's lonely landscapes, fear really does develop: not the fear that you will come across unearthly creatures, but the fear that you will come across little else. And what first seems horridly overdone accumulates a creepy minimalism. Taken as a whole, Lovecraft's work exhibits a hopeless isolation not unlike that of Samuel Beckett: lonely man after lonely man, wandering aimlessly through a shadowy city or holing up in rural emptiness, pursuing unspeakable secrets or being pursued by secret unspeakables, all to little avail and to no comfort. There is something funny about this -- in small doses. But by the end of this collection, one does not hear giggling so much as the echoes of those giggles as they vanish into the ether -- lonely, desperate and, yes, very, very scary.

Extrovert that I am, and given as I am to conversing with my characters, the root solution to these isolated protagonists' problem seems obvious: if only they had insisted to their authors on having novels to live in, they'd get much richer, more satisfying puzzles to solve, and above all, they wouldn't be alone.
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