Sunday, November 15, 2009

from Dawn Corrigan

Size Matters

Reading through the archives here at the VSF blog to date, I'm struck by the preoccupation with, well, size. By my rather cursory and unscientific count, at least a quarter of the two-dozen or so essays that precede mine address, in some fashion, very short fiction in comparison to not-quite-as-short-fiction. Most of them seem to feel a need to defend the honor, as it were, of VSF.

This anxiety about short forms, this worry that when it comes to writing, greater length really does = greater quality or more substance or SOMETHING better, is nothing new. It’s an old story, anyway, in poetry. After his first book was panned, John Keats rushed to produce his first epic poem, “Endymion,” to prove he should be taken seriously. (It didn’t work. It would take the 33 lines of “To Autumn” to do so.) Many other poets have followed suit.

Despite the fact that I prefer “This Living Hand” to “Endymion” (though the opening of the latter is a thing of beauty, I’ll admit) I struggle with the size question myself. Even as I write this I’m performing word counts on the essays that precede mine to make sure mine holds up. The notion that my life will be worthless unless I produce a few novels covers me like a pall at all times.

But here’s the thing about novels: they’re so full of description. I read my favorite books over and over again, and I love Watership Down more than I should be willing to admit, but every time I read

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood,
where the ground became open and sloped down to an
old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading
patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s
mercury and oak-tree roots …

I think the same thing: Where are the bunnies? Can we please get to the bunnies already!

Now that I’m attempting longer forms as a writer, I better understand the role that passages such as the one above serve, in terms of setting pacing, tone, mood, etc., in a book-length work. But there’s still a big part of me that wants to get to the bunnies. Even now when I read, I tend to skim, or skip entirely, passages devoted to setting and other physical descriptions, or even action sequences. Where it’s at, for me as a reader, is with dialogue and character. (“Scenery is fine—but human nature is finer,” John Keats said.)

When I think about what I like, and don’t like so much, as a reader of fiction, I’m reminded of the advice Seymour Glass offers his brother Buddy in Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction:

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write
that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer.
You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and
ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world
Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s
choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly
believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and
write the thing yourself.

The wonderful thing about VSF is, it allows you to shamelessly write the thing you most want to read. It lets you get right to the bunnies—whatever those happen to be for you. Insists upon it, in fact.

Bio: Dawn Corrigan has published poetry and fiction in a number of print and online journals. She’s an associate editor at Girls with Insurance and an original member of the writing collective The Nervous Breakdown. She promises all her stories don’t end with characters balancing plaster animals on their hands, just because two of the three below do. Thanks to Laura for the invitation to participate in this cool project.

Read “Our Happiness” at Monkeybicycle

Read “Life Force: A Fairy Tale” at Pindeldyboz

Read “Pink” at Wigleaf


  1. Hi Dawn - very nice, good economy and to the point. I loved your use of "the bunnies". While I agree that VSF can be as relevant as any form (I love writing tweets and flash), my own ego will never be satisfied until I can hold that same focus and intensity through 70 or 80,000 words. The novel may go the way of Opera and The Symphony (we don't seem to question our love of pop music, and perhaps the next two generations will shift the paradigm once and for all), but there will always be some magic in getting a reader to pick up a book and not set it down till finished, and that feeling of so totally entering another's world and living it, if only for a moment, mixed in with our own illusions.

  2. Hi Derek--thanks! I agree, as I've confessed here, about novels, but I do also think there are pleasures to be had as both a writer and reader of VSF. The reader's pleasure is more epiphanic with VSF, as opposed to being completely immersed in another (another's) world. Personally I enjoy both pleasures.

  3. heh. I always wonder how I'd read differently and what would I be attracted to, if I weren't a writer. Derek's comment is interesting, because in one (virtual) breath he speaks of the writerly ego, and in the next he talks about absorptive pleasure.