Why David Means Is Not a Novelist


At Work

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.