Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Personal essays and short stories

File this one under ‘thinking in public’ because I’m not sure what my point is here. Feel free to jump in anytime. Together we might find one.

Personal essays are easy to write. Sure, there’s some crafting, but there’s no research and not much imagination. There could be research and imagination. But they aren’t compulsory. I reckon a lot of blog posts, especially blog posts that get republished in online magazines, are personal essays. They are read in one sitting. We read them sitting at the computer while checking social media and reading the newspaper. They are usually about real life situations we can relate to. 
I have more admiration for writers who turn incidents from their own lives into fiction than I do for ones who just write about themselves. How much of yourself do you sell? I felt a bit queasy watching the Salinger documentary recently. I always admired him for not being a celebrity, for being a writer who guarded his privacy, and used his life in his fiction. It doesn’t really matter to me how he used his life in his fiction.

Alice Monro has recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. She is a writer and a mother whose form is the short story. This seems to be a good form for writers who are mothers. Sustainable. Doable. But only for the very clever.

There are lots of classic short stories available online. I read lots of personal essays online, but not short stories.

I’ve realised that there are short stories I've read that have stayed with me for years - The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, For Esme, With Love and Squalor, by Salinger, Poe's The Telltale Heart.

Whilst in my doctor’s waiting room I picked up a book called ‘But I saw the movie’ which is a collection of short stories that films have been based upon. It was published in 1989, so doesn’t include Brokeback Mountain, but it does include the stories that inspired Psycho, Rear Window, 2001 A Space Odyssey, It Happened One Night, All About Eve, The Fly, Blow-Up, Guys and Dolls and It’s a Wonderful Life. You just don’t see collections like this anymore.

There isn’t as big an audience for short stories as there used to be. When I was on prac, teaching a Year 10 English class at a boys school, I encouraged them to read short stories. Short stories are well crafted. For readers, they give a lot of bang for their time investment. They are often memorable.

There aren’t so many avenues for publication for short stories as there used to be. People don’t read short stories online. But there are lots available. For free. Why don’t I read short stories online? When I read short stories, I’m exposed to great writing, memorable stories, and get to read great writers. It’s a quick fix - I can say I’ve read great writer X without having to read a novel. It’s exposure. And I’m not just wanting that because I’m a snob, but because I’m planning to teach English, and need that exposure. I can’t say I particularly remember reading people’s blog posts or personal essays. I don’t expect everyone to be David Sedaris, and they’re not, even though lots of people are trying to be.

Lena Dunham is taking two bites at the cherry. She wrote the show she appears in, Girls, playing a main character who writes personal essays. This is satirised in the show. Writing only about one’s self is mocked. Since her success with Girls Lena Dunham has been given a $3.5 million advance for the publication of her personal essays.

I’m a bit cynical about Lena Dunham. But at the same time I’m telling my children to create their own work. Write songs and stories, paint pictures, and sell them. Make your own work. Good on Lena Dunham. Well done. But if the personal essays are about writing and starring in Girls, I’ll be a bit cross.

For Christmas I’ve bought myself the short stories and writings about family by Shirley Jackson. When you bump into me, ask me if I’ve read any short stories lately. I hope to answer ‘yes’. I might even share links on FB. 

Do you read short stories online?  

What are your favourite short stories?

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I adore the personal essay.

And I never read fiction online!

I think no less craft goes into a wonderful personal essay than into a short story...

Trouble is, most of what goes under the name of 'personal essay' is personal, but not an essay.