(With bonus points to readers who recognize from whence The Curmudgeon borrowed this title)
Remember Hal Linden, star of the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller?
Linden was a late bloomer professionally. He was forty-three years old when Barney Miller hit the airwaves, and until then, he was pretty much unknown.
As Linden traveled the talk show circuit as the star of a new and successful television series – a circuit that, back in those days, consisted entirely of Johnny, Merv, and Mike – he would tell people that he wasn’t new to show business and that his roots were on Broadway. Then, he’d grab a microphone and sing to prove his point.
That’s kind of where The Curmudgeon finds himself today. He’s written for a living since 1982 and his passion has always been writing fiction – primarily, short stories. He’s never been published, mostly because he doesn’t know how to go about that and, based on what he knows about what literary journals pay for short stories, he suspects it wouldn’t be worth the effort. He also questions whether he could get published even if he tried. Of course there’s always the question of whether his stories are good enough, which despite his own very high opinion of himself he wouldn’t even consider asserting.
The main reason for his doubts is that, as someone who occasionally reads contemporary short fiction, he finds that it’s a lot like women’s fashions: there are things that are in style and there are things that aren’t, and if what you’re selling isn’t what people are buying this year, you’re out of luck and your stuff is going to end up on the miscellaneous crap rack at Marshall’s.
And The Curmudgeon suspects that what he writes is Marshall’s material (the out of style part, not the crap part).
So what’re they buying in the short fiction world these days?
For starters, they’re seriously – seriously – into profanity. Most of it doesn’t really contribute to the story, but for some reason, people seem to think that if it doesn’t have nasty language, it isn’t “real.” The Curmudgeon’s short fiction rarely has profane language. He can recall one time, about two years ago, when he absolutely agonized over the use of profanity. He was writing a short story about a young woman who was trying to coax her father out of the lethargy and indifference that consumed him after the violent and tragic death of his wife and daughter. She was reminding him that he had once criticized someone for having too much time on her hands, citing that person’s regular reading of The Economist and The New Yorker as proof, and she says to her father
“Now you’re the only who’s reading…” she stopped, gasped, and swallowed, her eyes filling with tears, and when she spoke again, her voice was louder, stronger, but clearly pained, “…who’s reading The New Yorker and the goddamned Economist, so now you’re the one who needs to get a life.”
The Curmudgeon recalls agonizing over the use of “goddamned” – not because he thought it was too strong but because there was a stronger word that begins with f that would probably have fit much better. In the end he decided that “goddamned” was strong enough and got the point across and also enabled the young woman (she was a college student) to speak very strongly to her father without crossing a line.
Next, there’s usually gratuitous sex in today’s short stories – again, something that might be enjoyable for some people to read but, at least in these stories, doesn’t do anything to advance the plot.
Third, there’s at least one gay character for no particular reason.
Fourth, there always seem to be peripheral characters in these stories who weren’t born in the U.S. – again, for no particular reason except perhaps as a gratuitous nod to diversity.
The fifth, most striking, and most disturbing thing that’s so noteworthy about today’s short stories is the unusual degree to which they’re long on character and very, very short on plot. It’s like watching an episode of Monk – or pretty much any series on the USA cable network. They’ve developed some nice, interesting, quirky characters, but when the final credits roll, it dawns on you that you just lost an hour of your life watching a show that was about…was about…well, was about pretty much nothing.
Didn’t these people ever learn about Chekhov’s admonition that if in the first act of a story you describe a room as having a gun on the wall, it had better go off before the story’s over? In other words, if it’s not absolutely essential to your story, you need to drop it. The Curmudgeon can’t begin to count how many times he’s written some interesting, clever, or decidedly delicious anecdote or observation in one of his stories, only to practically weep as he deleted it because despite how much he loved it, it just didn’t contribute to advancing the story and therefore didn’t belong.
Needless to say, this is not how The Curmudgeon writes fiction. He’s short on character and long on plot, using the plot and the action to tell readers what they need to know about his characters; he’s particularly fond of using dialogue to advance his stories. His feeling is that if the story’s not interesting – and to The Curmudgeon, “interesting” begins with a strong plot – why would a reader ever turn the page?
In other words, The Curmudgeon is selling bell bottoms in a skinny jeans world.
But writing short stories is his true love, and he misses it. Writing a blog is more fun than he ever imagined, but it’s also a lot of work. For the past eleven months he’s tried to find time to work on short stories amid all of this blog writing, but it never worked. He’d get a great short story idea, start writing, get about a third of the way through, and then find that he needed to catch up on his blogging. He started several short stories while blogging but hasn’t finished even a single one, although he did manage complete first drafts of two – but only during the two-week vacation he took in August when he had no access to a computer and left his blogging behind. (Yes, The Curmudgeon was away for two weeks in August. Through the technology offered by WordPress, the blog’s host, he was able to post two weeks worth of material before hitting the road, and then he kept his fingers crossed that no one he mocked in any of those pieces would die a sudden and tragic death while he was not in a position to adjust the blog to accommodate such a development.)
So now, The Curmudgeon believes the time has come to step down from his soapbox and get back to the business – really, the joy – of writing short stories. Like Hal Linden, he wants to grab a microphone and belt out a smoky rendition of “Stormy Weather.” He misses writing short stories, and a few ideas are just burning to be written.
At the same time, he deeply regrets that the notebook and folder sitting on his desk bursting with dozens upon dozens of ideas for blog entries long and short will go unexplored and unexploited. So many subjects he wanted to take on: the Kardashians; the practice of Congress and state legislatures paying higher salaries to people in party leadership positions (like majority leaders and whips and minority leaders and whips), essentially spending public money on party business; that small stable of male actors who specialize in playing, well, douche bags; the abomination that is Nancy Grace; the manner in which television news and internet news web sites abuse the term “breaking news;” and the hypocrisy of Republican governors who claim to want the federal government to stay out of their business but who now are refusing to create the health insurance exchanges needed for health care reform and instead are letting the federal government they love to hate do it for them.
He also wanted to write about the incompetence of the security staff on the Jerry Springer Show; the reasons why football symbolizes so much of what’s wrong with our society and our culture today; about the obsession NASCAR fans have with the number on the side of their favorite driver’s car; about how the only black guy on the old Lawrence Welk Show was – unbelievably – a tap dancer; about all those ads asking people to donate the unneeded car sitting in their driveway, as if we all have extra cars sitting around; about the television series about women who hunt wild pigs (The Curmudgeon is not making this up); and about how Sarah Palin is the living personification of the adage “no guts, no glory,” because if she’d just had the guts to slog it through the messy Republican primaries, you just know that, in light of how strongly Mitt Romney ran in many places he lost, she might very well have destroyed President Obama in Tuesday’s election.
And then there were the pieces he contemplated about the fraud of the shamrock shakes and pink ribbons and how the businesses that sponsor such promotions get huge publicity benefits from them in exchange for making miniscule contributions with mostly their customers’ money; about the continued fall of Donald Trump, which would be sad if it weren’t so, well, so wonderful; about his sneaking suspicion that all those people on CNBC and other cable channels who talk about the economy have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about; about how the children of the 1960s and early 1970s who vilified their parents for the conspicuous consumption of driving those big old wood-paneled station wagons (remember the Vista Cruiser and Country Squire?) are now driving around in gigantic, gas-guzzling SUVs; about how The Curmudgeon wants to choke reporters who continue to refer to the Bush administration’s ramp-up of forces in Iraq with the administration-approved word “surge” instead of the “escalation” that proved so incendiary during reporting about Vietnam; about the idiotic developer in Cherry Hill, New Jersey who’s building apartment buildings that are supposed to look like city row houses, doing so in a town that people move to specifically to escape the city; about how almost all of VHI’s reality shows seem designed to make black people look ridiculous; and…and…and…the list is endless.
Before he takes his leave, The Curmudgeon would like to thank you for reading over these past eleven months and 242 blog entries. He is most grateful for the time and attention you gave his words and for the occasional kind word you passed along as well.
But now, he can finally return to not referring to himself in the third person.
Ahhhhh, what a relief!