I’ve always been a bigger fan of short stories than I have of novels. I think it has to do with the fact that I make drawings and not paintings. It’s a similar impulse to say more with less. Even though my drawings are very dense and busy, I am missing a lot of the tools painters have; the ability to have do-overs, the layers of paint and the scars that lay under the surface. I think novelists also have many of these tools in that they are able to create a nuanced and layered history and have more room for missteps.
I’ve been re-reading some of the essay and short story books that I haven’t read in decades. Over the Easter weekend I re-read Fires by Raymond Carver. There are a lot of great stories and poems in there but what I most enjoyed was an interview that was originally printed in The Paris Review. In it he talks a lot about his alcoholism in unromantic terms. He says “Of course there’s a mythology that goes along with the drinking, but I was never into that. I was into the drinking itself.”
He also talks a lot about his process and his difficult path as an artist, “You see, I started out with such low expectations in the first place—I mean, how far are you going to get in this life writing short stories?” The best part comes at the end when he talks about what art can and can’t do.
“After all, art is a form of entertainment, yes? For both the maker and the consumer. I mean in a way it’s like shooting billiards or playing cards, or bowling—it’s just a different, and I would say higher, form of amusement. I’m not saying there isn’t spiritual nourishment involved, too. There is, of course. Listening to a Beethoven concerto or spending time in front of a van Gogh painting or reading a poem by Blake can be a profound experience on a scale that playing bridge or bowling a 220 game can never be. Art is all the things art is supposed to be. But art is also a superior amusement. Am I wrong in thinking this? I don’t know…..
I understood then that art was something I could pursue when I had the time for it, when I could afford to do so, and that’s all. Art was a luxury and it wasn’t going to change me or my life….
The days are gone, if they were ever with us, when a novel or a play or a book of poems could change people’s ideas about the world they live in or even about themselves. Maybe writing fiction about particular kinds of people living particular kinds of lives will allow certain areas of life to be understood a little better than they were understood before. But I’m afraid that’s it….
But changing things through fiction, changing somebody’s political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no. Not if these are the kinds of changes you mean. And I don’t think it should have to do any of these things, either. It doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.”
You can read the whole interview here and if you’ve come this far, then you should.