Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: The State of Short Fiction in Canada (Part 4)

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Conflict of Interest

by Nathaniel G. Moore

Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three of "The State of Short Fiction in Canada."

In this episode, I speak with Andrew Somerset, author of the novel Combat Camera, about short fiction vs. long fiction. We're almost at the end of this series, and I think we as readers are learning a lot about each other and the genres we chose to appreciate, support and delve into. And with National Poetry Month in full swing, this might be the last time we hear about fiction for a few weeks. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of this series. So here we change things up slightly with a novelist. I mean, what do novelists have to say about this debate about the importance of the short story? They're a part of this conundrum, right?


When did you start writing your novel?


On March 19, 2003, which was (not coincidentally) the first day of the war on Iraq. It started as a reaction to the incredible media manipulation leading up to that war, and the willing gullibility of a large chunk of the public. Strangely, I had completely forgotten that by the time it was finished -- I only remember because I found it in an old notebook last year. After a story simmers long enough, it becomes more about itself than anything external. You should find yourself reading it and saying, what is that? Cumin? You cook it until all the things it's about blend together.


When you tell your friends about your book do they immediately ask you what it is? I'm talking genre here, not what a book is.


I live among civilians. That is to say, there aren't many writers in the suburbs of London, Ontario, and my day job is far removed from publishing. I'm in the world of the so-called "general reader," or among those who rarely read at all. And the first question is always either "what's it about," or "what kind of a book is it? A mystery, or what?" As a writer you cringe at this sort of thing, of course, but maybe we forget that the first and simplest form of pleasure in reading is story. Regardless of the pleasures of good writing, shouldn't a story be first and foremost a good story? So people naturally want to know what kind of story it is. Unfortunately, a lot of people then develop preconceived notions about what kind of story they like.


Do you think it's easier to market a novel over a short fiction collection?


I think that a novel is unquestionably easier to sell than a short story collection, simply because a novel is about something. A short story collection is about a dozen or so somethings, so it's hard to put a hook into the general reader. If you look at the success of Annabel, before the awards season, almost all of the discussion surrounded what it's about. People praised it first and foremost for its subject, called it necessary and essential. George Murray called it "dangerous," a risible remark. The book really doesn't challenge its audience, but they get to talk about how bold the subject is. How can a short fiction collection, no matter how accomplished, compete with this?

The readership of short stories, Alice Munro notwithstanding, is restricted to people who appreciate the short story as a form. It's a small readership, but dedicated. If you choose to write short stories, you simply won't get much sales unless you're shortlisted for an award. Mind you, the same seems to hold true of the novel in Canada's dismal literary culture.

The sad thing is that novels are sold on what they're about, when they should be about more than just one thing. You have three hundred pages to allow the story to expand and to swallow all of life, but our novels so rarely do this, because we don't demand it of them. Our best short stories do. I was reading Alistair MacLeod's As Birds Bring Forth the Sun recently. Those stories are huge. They encompass so much. And yet we let a novel get away with being so small in its concerns. The novel has so much room to breathe, and so often, it doesn't. We should hold the novel to a higher standard.


What do you personally prefer to read?


I'm not sure that I have a preference. I'm fairly omnivorous, except that I don't really read genre fiction these days. That's what television is for, my genre fix. Also, it's only in the past couple of years that I've gone out of my way to read a lot of Canadian writers and keep up with what people are writing in this country. I'm suspicious of CanLit as a category, when you consider that Canada has the population of California; if Californians went on and on about their regional literature in the way some Canadians do, you'd rightly dismiss them as crackpots.

I do prefer short novels. I haven't read William Vollmann, and I'm not sure I can bring myself to. There's an unfortunate tendency in some quarters to rate a novel by its utility as a blunt instrument during a home invasion: if it's that thick and heavy, it must be good. Or, more accurately, if it was that much of a chore to read, then you must be real gosh-awful smart to have got through it. To me, every page over three hundred had better be worth it. If you write a 450-page novel, you'd better have a vision 450 pages wide. No number of sly pop-culture references can justify the longevity of The Simpsons; it's the same joke a thousand times. The same applies to books; the more time you take up, the more you should have to say. If you think you need 450 pages to get it done, try condensing it into a screenplay. You don't have that much time; people will walk out of the movie. Too many novels are sold by weight, not volume; you get the sense that there was some settling of the contents during shipping.


What are you working on now, do you think you'll continue in the novel route, or try short fiction?


I was working on the next novel before Biblioasis picked up Combat Camera, and I've been plodding along at that. It's slow going. I am suffering all the usual frustrations, appended to which is a general ambivalence towards writing. I don't hold with this notion that writers have a burning desire to write. I can do many other rewarding things besides writing, such as training my Springer Spaniel. She thinks I'm a great guy. On the other hand, I wrote a book, and Canada pretty much yawned. Who would I rather spend time with? When we think of the struggles of writers, I think many people discount the day-to-day difficulty of giving a s**t.

I don't think you can force these things. They happen in their own time.

Nathaniel G. Moore's first short story was written in 1981 about a fox going to a new town. You can ask his mother Diane to read it to you over the phone one evening, just not at dinnertime. His favourite short story is "Various Restaurants" by Daniel Jones. He wishes he had written the Arcade Fire lyric "Businessmen drink my blood / like the kids in art school said they would" instead he wrote, "He walked with the shame of an orthepedic goat," a line from Sensational Sherri (Black Bile Press, 2009) Visit his brand new website designed by Clare Marshall, right here

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