Voice (Differences in Short Story and Novel Writing)


For my Irish fiction class this past week we read the novel Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe. The story starts with a brief history of Irish revolution and then launches straight into this voice:

“Although I’m afraid I don’t get too many clients these days! I can just imagine the reaction of my old acquaintance is they saw me now, sitting here in my silly old coat and headscarf–off out that door and down London’s Kilburn High Road with the lot of them, no doubt! Still, no point in complaining–after all, every beauty has to lose her looks sometime and if the gold-digging days of poor old darling poo poo puss are gone for ever, well then, so be it.”

Raise your hand if you’re exhausted. These two sentences alone are filled with exclamations, interjections, extra words, and weird syntax, forcing the reader to work really hard to get what’s going on. There is justification for the voice: the manuscript is supposedly the autobiography of an Irish transvestite who is a former prostitute and suspected IRA terrorist. Certainly, this character would have her/his own crazy voice, and certainly her syntax skills would not be quite up to snuff. The idea behind this voice is great.

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How Times Have Changed

In my first fiction class, my professor handed out an article on short stories by William Boyd, a Scottish novelist. The article was a reflection on short stories, both about their history and their nature. We were more interested in the latter, but one of the details Boyd offered about the short story’s history was particularly striking: they used to pay well. In fact, according to Boyd, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 per story in the twenties, and Updike earned enough from five or six stories a year in the New Yorker to support his growing family.

Needless to say, that is not something that can happen today. Very few agents even represent short stories, and only the lucky writer gets a collection published. Short stories are something we write for the fun or artfulness of it, something to be published at best in a literary magazine where like-minded writers will read them, or simply the medium with which we learn to write.

Perhaps what surprised me the most about Boyd’s facts was that these writers did not live all that long ago. Updike’s short story salary was in the 1950s, less than sixty years ago. Around the time my parents were born, writers were valued for their short stories, maybe even more so than for their novels. According to Boyd, even in the eighties, it was popular to publish short story collections. All it has taken is twenty or thirty years for everything to change.

And yet–what has changed? Updike and Fitzgerald  both wrote short stories and novels. They had many contemporaries writing short stories and novels (and I bet there were  a lot of rejected writers out there, too). Boyd still writes short stories and novels; Joyce Carol Oates still writes short stories and novels; heck, even Stephanie Meyer has written a short story or two. We might not be paid a fair wage for our art, but we writers are still producing, whether the rest of the world likes it or not.

This is a slice of optimism I would like to relish as others decry the rapid changes in the publishing world. Printed books  may become endangered; publishing houses may go extinct; editors may be a bonus, not a requirement of published writing; but what is that really going to change? In the end, there will still be writers writing, just like there was when Chekhov invented the short story, when Updike earned a living from the short story, and when, today, I am learning how to write the great American short story.