20 March 2006

Bruce Holland Rogers: Short-Short Stories

I happened to run into Bruce Holland Rogers briefly at the AWP Conference, which reminded me that I had intended this month to write a bit about his short-short story subscription series, where subscribers can have three stories emailed to them each month for the more than reasonable price of $5/year.

I love the idea of the subscription series, because it's so simple and yet effective, giving readers a regular new dose of fiction of manageable size, and forcing a writer to keep writing, to keep engaging with an audience, to keep playing around and trying stuff out. With a writer of less skill than Rogers, it might grow tedious, but I've been reading the stories for a year now and have enjoyed seeing what sorts of things he'll come up with each time. At their best, the stories are small gems; at their worst, they are rarely less than competent. That's not a bad track record, and it certainly seems worth $5.

Before I discuss some specific stories, I need to admit some prejudices. First off, I much prefer lyrical and poetic short-shorts to narrative ones -- I tend to like the sorts of things that get labelled as prose poetry, but am somewhat less enamored of super-short prose narratives, because so often it seems writers who try to tell stories with very few words end up resorting to tricky endings, stereotyped characters, and sentimentality. Nonetheless, done well, it can be a thrilling form.

Rogers often does write short narratives, a few of which (the longer ones) I found somewhat interesting, but I was most taken with his work when he experimented a bit with form, for instance the all-dialogue story "Look, There He Is!" from March of last year, the chronicle of deaths that is "Resume" from September, the "autobiographical" fantasy "Bruce Holland Rogers" from just last week, and, especially, the story-told-as-a-recipe "Lydia's Orange Bread", first published by 3AM and then sent out as part of the subscription in October. (Yes, sometimes subscription stories are previously published.)

Read as they arrive, the stories are a pleasant, sometimes thought-provoking break from the other sorts of emails that come in, and I've been glad to receive them each time, even if one particular story or another didn't work for me. Read as a whole, they are somewhat less effective, because despite Rogers's experimentations with form, his sentences are generally similar in their approach, and so while the structures of the stories are remarkably varied, the style seems less so. (This could be said of most writers, including quite a few great ones, and it really isn't much of a concern when the stories are read apart from each other.)

While I'm here, I should recommend Rogers's useful book Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, one of the few books that tackles pragmatic concerns of being a writer, not just basics of "how to write a short story" or other things 1,423,683 other writing books are about. The section on "Dangerous Territory" is worth the price of the book alone, as it looks at "The Hazards of Rejection and Acceptance", "The Hazards of Writing Workshops", and, nearest and dearest to my heart, "The Hazards of Reviews". I'll leave you with some wisdom from the last:
If you're writing for reviewers, or if you're hesitating to write something because of what the reviewers might say, you've lost your soul.

6 comments:

  1. An interesting idea, though I wonder whether anyone could actually make a living this way.

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  2. I don't think the goal was to make a living from it. There's some supplemental income, which is helpful, but there's no reason to judge it a worthwhile idea only if somebody can live off it. Most markets for short-short stories don't pay anything at all, so at least he's ahead a bit this way.

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  3. Does Rogers deal with the appalling carelessness of losing one's soul instead of selling it on the open market?

    Rick Bowes

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  4. Alas, he's a little quiet on that subject, but I'm hoping to interest the Cato Institute in my new book about all the ways to sell your soul in the global market.

    I keep trying, myself, and the most common response is, "You call that thing a soul?!"

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  5. I've written maybe half a dozen fan letters in my life. One of them was to Bruce for his amazing story: "The Dead Boy at Your Window." One of the best things I have ever read.

    And I agree that his Word Work is one of the best books for a working writer ever written.

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  6. Yeah--I agree. I really love Rogers' book. And the more my career has developed, the more I've appreciated it.

    JeffV

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