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Posts Tagged ‘The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea’

Many thanks to Lenore at Presenting Lenore and her husband, Daniel!  Daniel is a published illustrator who agreed to create a graphic for her (and me! and all of us!) for the LT Author Challenge.  Is that Emmy reading a book written by a LibraryThing Author?!

Here’s the list of books I hope to read and review for the challenge:

  • The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
  • Whale Song by Cheryl Kaye Tardif
  • Transported by Tim Jones
  • Guernica: A Novel by Dave Bolin
  • Janeology by Karen Harrington
  • The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea by Christopher Meeks

That’s two LT Author books a month, in addition to my “regular” schedule for reviewing, book groups, etc.  I think I’m up for the challenge!

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Earlier I wrote a post about short stories and the challenges my book group has had when we’ve attempted to discuss them.  I was pleased to get a very insightful response from Christopher Meeks, a playwright, columnist, and published author of four children’s books, a novel, and two collections of short stories, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons.  Christopher discusses the difficulty of finding a willing audience for short stories (agents and reviewers may shy away from them; general readers tend to really enjoy them), and offers several great suggestions for how to approach a discussion about a collection.  I asked Christopher if I could list his essay as a Guest Post; here it is:

I’m writing in response to Dawn’s questions about book clubs and short fiction collections.  Ironically, I found her blog as I researched Jhumpra Lahiri’s bestselling collection, Unaccustomed Earth. I wanted to know who was writing about that collection because it could be someone open to reading my own collection, Months and Seasons, published last month. 

 

I’ve had much success with short stories, but it hasn’t been easy.  It’s not just book clubs that are resistant to short stories.  Every part of the publishing industry is.  Yet, thanks in part to Jhumpra Lahiri’s book most recently, the ice is melting.  If I may, I’ll offer insight from a writer’s point of view.

 

My first inkling short story publication would be hard was in the late nineties.  I’d been a produced playwright, and I’d written short stories for years, often between plays.  A few magazines, such as The New Yorker and Harpers publish short stories, but I couldn’t start there.  I had no name. 

 

Literary magazines made sense, but I soon learned that it’s more likely you’ll be struck from lightning than published in literary magazines.   When you consider the North Dakota Quarterly receives over 500 short stories a month and publishes maybe ten an issue for no payment to a circulation of 800, you can see the problem.  Few people publish short stories, you’re not paid, and few people read them.

 

Still, I love the form.  I happen to teach English and creative writing, and I’ve found my students might not understand short stories at first, but they come to love them.  The joy they get in discussing, for instance, “Lust” by Susan Minot, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor, or “Carnal Knowledge” by T.C. Boyle is visible and rises as my students offer insight to each other.  I conduct class like a book club.  Every voice has weight. My students ask questions of each other.  Certain details bring meaning.  I encourage thinking.

 

As for my publishing short fiction, lightning struck.  I managed to publish several short stories in literary magazines over a few years and had the brilliant idea of putting the stories into a collection.  I knew a literary agent and sent him the manuscript to see if he’d represent me.  He called.  “I love your stories,” he said.  “You’re a great writer.  You should write a novel.”

 

I said I probably would someday, but could he send my collection out for possible publication?  He said no.  “There’s no money in short fiction.  Any advance you’d get would be small.  For the time it would take me to set it up, I’d get 15% of almost nothing.  I can’t do it.  Write a novel.” 

 

This went back and forth with my suggestion that all he needs to do is put a cover letter on the collection, send it to a few places, and see what happens.  “Write a novel,” he said to end it.

 

I’ll give this to the man: he got me to write a novel and when my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2006, and the Los Angeles Times reviewed it and well, he called to congratulate me, even though he wasn’t my agent.

 

The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea received over a dozen reviews, all positive, mostly in literary websites, but my coup was that Entertainment Weekly mentioned that it’s a must read, and sales rose.

 

The challenge to find readers continues.  My second collection, Months and Seasons, had its publication party at the Beverly Hills Public Library last month as part of the library’s New Short Fiction series.  To build on that honor, I hired a publicist so that the book might be reviewed in publishing industry journals such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, places that bookstores and libraries read to select what books they order.

 

My publicist called to say she’d just spoken with Booklist, a major journal for librarians.  “They said they rarely review short story collections—maybe two a year—and it has to be from a big-name author.”  I wasn’t big name. 

 

If librarians don’t see the book reviewed, how can short story collections get in libraries?  If libraries don’t offer a lot of collections, then how do people consider short story collections?  If book reviewers don’t consider collections, then it’s not on the radar of ordinary readers.  Thus, it’s an extra challenge to get a short story collection seen.

 

I’m not disheartened.  After all, Jhumpra Lahiri just won the Frank O’Connor Award and 35,000 Euros.  Her book has been on bestseller lists for months.  These days, people like short stories because they have little time for reading compared to past generations, and short stories are beautiful small units. 

 

This brings me to how a book club should approach discussing a short story collection.  My notion is that short story collections as a whole should be thought of as concept rock albums.  That’s because it’s often the way collections are put together.  I fret like Bruce Springsteen over the order of the tales.  I work and rework the table of contents.  Some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader’s emotions should be like California Screamin’, the roller coaster I went on recently went on with my nine-year-old daughter: ups and downs, and the loop is a surprise.

 

Your club, in discussing a short story collection, should ask are there themes or concepts that are apparent throughout the stories?  Do the stories bring light to this confusing thing we call life—and how do the stories do that?

 

Good writers allow the subconscious mind to lay imagery and ideas in their stories, and readers may find concrete meaning in things that slipped in.  I titled my first collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea because it was funny, playing with Hemingway’s title.  Yet reviewers found water imagery in a number of stories that played into theme.  I had to admit it was there, but it wasn’t conscious.

 

With Months and Seasons, I was aware of wanting to write stories about time—narratives of different people at different ages.  One story has a seven-year-old girl who is afraid of the water.  Another story has a 78-year-old playwright afraid of a raging fire.

 

What is each reader’s favorite story and why?  My favorite part in reading reviews of my books is discovering which story hit home the most.  Different reviewers have different favorites.  Only this morning did Google Alert notify me of this blogger: click here and you’ll see what Grady Harp, a top-ten Amazon reviewer, likes about this new book.  I don’t know the man, but his review shows me the challenges are all worth it.

 

I happen to be serious about my fiction in that stories should entertain and open doors.  I sat in on a book club reading my work recently, and it was fun.  There were times things were spirited—someone didn’t like something while someone else thought it was brilliant.  You know book clubs.  It’s not about agreement; it’s about disagreement and trying to get others see your point of view. It’s about this crazy life.

 

I love book clubs.

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