Friday, September 9, 2011

Phillip Sterling on the "Well-Chosen Absence of Words"

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Phillip Sterling, author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told (Wayne State University Press) compares writing stories to writing poetry.

In writing a short story, I hold to the doctrine that Less Is More. The less we know about a character or the events that transpire, the more we must rely on what we are told. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy long breathy novellas or even long breathy sentences. To be sure, there is a certain pleasure in immersing ourselves in a deep, warm tub of description: We can relax and luxuriate and not have to pay close attention to every element. But if, instead, the element is limited, even scarce, then we’re likely to be more attentive to what we do have, in hopes of not losing out. We feel pleasure just the same, but it’s quicker, more momentary. And more intense. The kind of pleasure I have found in many poems.          

Poets, I think, read with more attentiveness—with more caution and suspicion—than the average fictionist. They have been trained to do so, not only to question everything they find in a poem but also to consider what they don’t. And while the final line in a good poem is often compared to a door swinging closed with satisfying click, the brevity of most poems tends to leave many people feeling like they’ve been left on the wrong side of the portal. There is often some confusion, some uncertainty. Whatever sense of satisfaction one might have is accompanied by a feeling of intrigue, of questions left unanswered. For that reason, we often reenter the poem and take another look around, hoping to find what we’ve missed.

My interest in very short fiction stems in part from my training as a reader (and then writer) of poetry. I’m intrigued by the well-chosen word, of course, but even more so by the well-chosen absence of words, the space in which a poem hangs. In the visual arts, sculpture in particular, such otherness beyond form is called “negative space” (a term I’ve always considered a kind of tautology). In a short narrative, it’s what we’re not being told.

What-we-don’t-know is often purposeful in dramatic narrative or mystery writing. It’s a way of sustaining interest and intrigue; it’s a formal and structural consideration (the primary method of playwriting, I suspect). We realize a certain satisfaction when, at the end, everything is revealed to us.

Information left out for the sake of brevity, however, is different. The intent is more poetic. What-we-don’t-know we don’t know throughout—there is no resolution—which may not be so much the result of manipulation on the part of the writer but of the lack of knowledge on the part of the narrator herself.          

Fiction—and very short fiction in particular—has many of the same purposes as poetry, not the least of which is “to teach and to delight.” Parables, fables, allegories, romances—whether in poetic form or prose—are meant to feed us the chalky knowledge of our human condition, but in a way that tastes like gingerbread (or Jolly Ranchers candy). Such stories are obvious and purposeful, and we come away feeling satisfied for that reason. Yet, at times, not unlike poetry (which occasionally buckles to the peer pressure of its cousin Philosophy), fiction will not have answers. It will raise a few quick questions and then send us on our way.