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Why David Means Is Not a Novelist

June 22, 2010 | by

Photograph by Max Means

Since his 1991 debut “A Quick Kiss of Redemption,” David Means has established himself among the finest and most incisive American writers of contemporary short fiction—and as the member of his generation perhaps most invested in the short form itself. In his three previous books—each curated with remarkable care and enviable devotion—Means has delivered exquisite local portraits of the destitute, desolate, and disconsolate in postindustrial America. In the course of discussing “The Spot,” his marvelous new collection of razor-sharp shorts, we wondered, is he tempted at all to go longer—to essay the novel?

Yeah, I'm tempted by the novel. Tempted is the correct word because compared to the demands of the story it would seem that the novel, all that wide-open space, would be enticing after four story collections. But what's not enticing to me is the idea of simply going big and wide for the sake of giving into the possibility of going big. I love novels, and I read them more than anything, but stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they're highly charged, a slightly newer form, and inherently more contemporary.

Big and wide can mean expansive and comprehensive, but it can also mean bloat. Novels often thin themselves out to a watery hue—some even start that way—and at times seem to only ride along the surface of things, giving us what we already know, reporting the news that is just news. Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. I keep reading novels that feel, even if they're trying new tricks, like old news, and often resort to cliché to keep moving: out of the corner of his eyes, his heart was pounding in his chest, that kind of thing. Those books are just surfing along on a very small waves—reading them is like watching surfers on Cape Cod trying to catch whatever's coming in on a lame day.

I'm not at all interested in simply reporting what's here right now, or cranking out an entertainment device that's going to touch the widest number of people. I'm interested in digging and excavating as deep as I can go into those small eternal moments and how they expand out, or close in, on the lives of my characters. I lean towards the souls on the fringes of the corporate/industrial landscape, and some of those folks are mute, silent, close-lipped and don't say enough to start filling a novel. As a story writer, you have work with sharp but relatively small tools, the picks of metaphor, the shovel blade of images, the trowel of point of view, and then you delicately lift and brush in the revision with love and care knowing that one slip and you might damage an extremely delicate thing. In the end it has to be as solid as marble. But during the process it's like an ancient shard of pottery.

All of this just to say that, yes, I'm tempted still by the novel, but I'm happy to be working hard at stories. I could go on here to talk about how, paradoxically—and maybe I'm contradicting myself, but so what, like Whitman said, do I contradict myself, who cares, I'm an American, I have to hold multitudes—bloat can be good if it's interesting. A move from stories to novels for me would be partly a matter of not giving into the temptation to abuse the form.

It's a death trap to write something as a flight of fancy, or to sell more books. I was working on a novel a few years ago—I'm still working on it on and off—but then I began to write a story, “The Spot,” and it landed in The New Yorker and I was happy and shifted gears and continued to write stories. When I'm down—and even Alice Munro admits that at times she feels guilty for not writing a novel—I just start a defensive mantra: Blake never wrote novels. Whitman never wrote novels. Carver's work is still around. Franz Wright hasn't written a novel. And it's not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn't coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode.

16 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. Steven Augustine | June 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    This over-emphasis on The Novel is just the gigantism of commodity fetish. It’s a VENTI-java and FAMILY SIZED-ketchup consciousness. And I think (eg) that DFW would have been better off, after IJ, sticking with shorts and not even *thinking* about novels. Future writers: more perfect pearls and fewer old melons, please.

  2. Saladin Ahmed | June 22, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Means is a good writer, but the notion that he is self-evidently “the member of his generation perhaps most invested in the short form itself” requires some pretty heavy-duty genre blinders. Plenty of brilliant writers in the genre ghettos of science fiction and fantasy are producing amazing short form work. Look at Jeffrey Ford or Michael Swanwick for starters. While the marketing issues at work in ‘genre’ fiction (and make no mistake, the novel’s dominance is an issue of marketing more than anything else) still privilege the novel, it’s worth noting that ‘mainstream’ readers looking for short stories that “cut in sharp and hard” might find more to read if they look outside of their generic comfort zone.

  3. shruti | June 23, 2010 at 1:32 am

    I’m terribly glad to see such articulate and elegant speaking For the short story, not in defense of short story. I’m glad to see it in the midst of all these homilies to the short story ‘it’s not dead’, and ‘reviving’ it (?) etc that keep swirling around.
    But I love his last line, I’m going to keep that with me a long time, and hopefully keep remembering it as I work.

  4. Fred Chalfant | June 23, 2010 at 6:21 am

    “A Quick Kiss of Redemption” was published in 1991 not 1993.

  5. Sarah Gorham | June 23, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I’d be perfectly happy if David Means kept writing stories his entire life. They do indeed “cut in hard and hard.” Impossible to forget.

  6. Sarah Gorham | June 23, 2010 at 11:51 am

    “sharp and hard” sorry…

  7. The Paris Review | June 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for the correction, Mr. Chalfant.

  8. dan visel | June 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I’m surprised that no one’s pointed out that Walt Whitman published Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate, a “temperance novel,” in 1842. Duke reissued it in 2007; an older edition is available at Google Books.

  9. Steven Augustine | June 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Saladin Ahmed:

    Just read “Hooves and the Hovel…” and it was quite creepy-good.

  10. Cindy S | June 24, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    On second read, I’ve decided this “essay” is really just a snobby cop-out. This line: “I lean towards the souls on the fringes of the corporate/industrial landscape, and some of those folks are mute, silent, close-lipped and don’t say enough to start filling a novel.” That’s what great novels and writers do, isn’t it? Give the marginalized the space to speak? If you can’t/won’t write a novel, fine, but don’t knock it. There are shit-tons of novelists who wouldn’t be able to write a short story if you held a gun to their heads.

  11. David Means | June 25, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Guess I should’ve said: are mute and silent but the readers do get to hear them speak–at least internally–in some of the stories. It does sound like a snobby copout the way it is in the thing I wrote. One of my favorite novels is James Kelman’s how late it was, how late, in which we get to hear a long narrative from the point of view of a guy who’s wandering on the margins. . .ok, even tht might sound snobby, the word margins.

  12. Clark Zlotchew | June 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    J.L. Borges said he never wrote a novel because a short story, “a long short story,” he clarified, can do everything a 500-page tome can do with less strain on the reader. I don’t agree; the novel and the short story just don’t have the same goals. They produce different results. I think Borges, who enjoys playing with the reader and the interviewer, never wrote a novel simply because being blind, he would need a tremendously powerful memory to keep track of all the characters, and to find where he last left off in the plot. Actually, if memory serves, he actually admitted this (thereby contradicting his original statement) in an interview.

4 Pingbacks

  1. [...] Accomplished story writer David Means on why he hasn’t written a novel. Very well said. I know there are a few of you out there with vehement opinions on this. Thoughts? Yeah, I’m tempted by the novel. Tempted is the correct word because compared to the demands of the story it would seem that the novel, all that wide-open space, would be enticing after four story collections. But what’s not enticing to me is the idea of simply going big and wide for the sake of giving into the possibility of going big. I love novels, and I read them more than anything, but stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they’re highly charged, a slightly newer form, and inherently more contemporary. [...]

  2. [...] the heart of “The Junction” as well. In an interview with The Paris Review, he explains why he writes stories, not novels, and ends with: “And it’s not fear of bad reviews, or not making something [...]

  3. [...] other really helpful comment came from my friend David Means. “You don’t write through shame,” he said, “you write around it.” I still couldn’t tell [...]

  4. [...] including Wes in Carver’s story “Chef’s House,” read above by celebrated short story-ist David Means. Published in The New Yorker in 1981, “Chef’s House” marks the beginning of Carver’s [...]

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