The Male Short Story
S. Fischer Verlag: Hochzeiten
An essay by Maike Wetzel

Translated from the German by Chantal Wright

What on earth is a male short story? A literary Loaded? A narrative Nuts?

A short story sporting a beard comes to mind. It moves forward decisively, mows down a few other stories, checks out its surroundings, mates with the best-looking female story. The End. Carnage.

But of course that's not the way it is.

Admittedly, as a young female writer suffering from the pigeonhole syndrome, it's tempting to use this opportunity to turn the tables and polemicise about literary Mr Men to counterbalance the much discussed phenomenon of the Little Miss Scribbler. It wouldn't help matters, but it's amusing and would allow me to let off some steam. However, as I continue to believe in progress, this will be my very last word on the subject of 'lad's lit'.

What else is this essay supposed to be about? Masculinity and short stories? "A large field, a large field," as Theodor Fontane once sighed. Even this German writer was almost forced into the rubric of this essay; such is the size of the umbrella under which I am supposed to fit all male short story writers. But please don't hold out any hope. My experiment will not succeed.

The male short story is a mysterious two-headed animal. The concept is as forked as a divining rod, so it's impossible to tackle the two branches at the same time. Let's begin, for chronology's sake, with the oldest question in the book. How does the allegedly 'stronger sex' write? What is the so-called 'difference'? Where is it to be found in literature?

Let's make one thing clear to start with. I do not know what makes a story male. The author, somebody whispers in my ear. Sure. But as far as the gender of the author goes, well, there's quite a lot to be said on that topic - and on the topic of gender and writing full stop. Even though it's groan-worthy, the Y chromosome remains a hot topic. What's annoying, though, is not the fact of the existence of two separate sexes, but rather much of the debate about 'masculinity' and 'femininity', a state of affairs which also holds true in the world of literature.

First of all, it's a very one-sided discussion. If you type the term 'women's literature' into an Internet search machine and compare the number of hits you get with those for 'men's literature' ... 1:0 for the women, a deceptive numerical dominance. The label 'women's literature' still carries with it the old chained-to-the-kitchen-sink cliché, its front covers decorated with roses or hearts. It infers a worm's eye view - even when the term isn't used in an obviously derogatory fashion, the reference to gender always suggests that the writer's sex determines what they have to say.

The godmothers of 'women's literature' come from all camps, from the art as well as from the business world. The palette ranges from hawkers to backslappers. Even those who see themselves as the 'good guys' - the literary messengers - belong in here: anthology editors, reading tour and festival organisers. Newspaper review sections regularly feature articles about female writers, using their gender as the so-called 'linchpin' that holds the piece together. It's as though we were still living in Virginia Woolf's time when women were not allowed to enter university libraries. I find the term 'linchpin' very apt in this context. It conjures up the mindless, lynching masses.

The idea behind the talk of women's or men's literature is a simple one. It offers direction in a directionless world. Categories make things easier. Making a purchase, living a life, forming an opinion. The booksellers and the publishers are at the very forefront of this drive, on the lookout for easy categories with which to entice new customers to their product. Profit in the world of literature is of course always under threat from somewhere. From the Internet, from the boom of literary 50p shops à la Jokers (translator's note: German bookstore selling at discount prices), from the big book chains. Nevertheless, several times a year a flood of freshly printed books hits the market, the shelves in the shops are full, but none of these titles and authors mean a thing if they don't got that swing ... Marketing, the all purpose weapon. Unfortunately, ever fewer books enjoy the privilege; advertising concentrates on a small proportion of the publisher's list, on titles that will yield a large audience, on the superstars. In the first instance, therefore, on those who are already well-known. The 'women's literature' tag that one sees in shops, and even in libraries, is a game of numbers. Motivated by profit. It's only logical that 'men's literature' should eventually limp alongside. In the long term, the other half of humanity has to join us in the boat. And this despite a rumour in the business that women read and men don't. But that's yet another red herring I'd like to throw overboard.

The sex of the author reveals neither whether we are dealing with a good or a bad story nor anything else about what kind of story it might be. The sex of the author seems to me the wrong saddle for the short story's stubborn horse. For me, the short story is far more than a journeyman's piece, far more than a rehearsal for that great masterpiece, the novel. Its small framework does not necessarily imply a reduced complexity. Alice Munro's stories, for example, contain more of 'the world' than many a novel. Even Heinrich Böll, who not insignificantly pocketed the Nobel Prize for Literature, preferred the short story; it was his favourite prose form. "I find it modern in the true sense of the word, that is to say 'of the present', intense, taut. It does not tolerate the least bit of neglect and it remains for me the most enchanting prose form, because it is the most difficult to stereotype." Short story writers have to be able to deal with restriction. There is not much room to develop tension, sketch character, solve mysteries. Each individual sentence, each word in the short story carries more weight than it does in the large house of the novel. Böll, who worked with both forms, did not play the novel and the short story off against each other. He crowned neither the one nor the other to be the lonely queen of literature. But he did describe the effort that is hidden behind the seemingly quickly written. "I have been thinking about it, because I have just started writing short stories again and I notice how incredibly difficult it is. [...] I think short stories are best compared with watercolours, seemingly speedy, but a form of expression which takes an intense amount of work." 'The couple of pages' are not that easy to pull out of one's sleeve after all.

Well, that's just one end of the food chain. At the other stand the readers, and they, if we are to believe the publishers and the booksellers, just aren't interested in short stories. Readers - allegedly - want to delve into other worlds, they want to accompany a heroine, a hero, and not be expelled from the plot after a few pages. Up until a few years ago, nobody in Germany had the confidence to publish short stories by young, unknown authors. Then along came Ingo Schulze and Judith Hermann. Their stories sold well and suddenly other writers were also able to find big publishing houses for their short stories. Interestingly, Ingo Schulze's Simple Stories was marketed as a novel, whereas today, books comprised of individual stories or even longer short stories of around 120 pages often lack a genre marker on the front cover. Is this a step in the right direction?

A lot of authors who work with both forms stress that they would love to write exclusively short stories, but that both publishers and agents push for novels. The wonderful Deborah Eisenberg has, throughout her career as a writer, stubbornly remained with the short form. But even though she lives in the land of the short story, the USA, the demand for the hefty tome is strong. "No question about it, there's a lot of pressure. I'm very lucky that my publisher and my agent don't tell me to cough up that novel. But with that good fortune comes a knowledge that you're never really going to be taken very seriously unless you write a novel. I'm so perverse that I actually find the prospect interesting. Could I get the same depth, could I play as much with different tonalities, by sustaining a storyline at that length? I think that it might be kind of fun, and then I think that it's exactly what 'they' want me to do." On the provocative question of whether she has any desire to write "Deborah Eisenberg's breakthrough work", she counters: "It's just too irritating, too annoying. Part of the pleasure of writing is that it's the 'bad kid' activity par excellence. Why should you give that up?" Short stories are unruly. They don't serve up solutions and they demand all of our attention. Those who write them can't count on heaps of laurel wreaths. The greatest praise a newspaper article can offer the writer of the short story is when the reviewer patronisingly looks forward to their 'forthcoming' novel.

John Cheever brings us back to what is really of importance, beyond issues such as novel versus short story, male versus female author. His answer to the question of why he writes short stories is: " ... as long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature, and without a literature, we will, of course, perish".

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL