Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Short Story Month: "Let's Ditch the Labels" by Dawn Raffel

The Quivering Pen has taken the brevity spirit of National Short Story Month to heart and condensed its celebration down to seven days.  All this week, I’ll have guest posts from some of the best writers of contemporary short-form fiction...and one dead author who will report from beyond the grave.  Today’s guest is Dawn Raffel, author of the story collections Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In The Year Of The Long Division.  Susan Straight praised her work, saying, “Dawn Raffel’s stories are like prismatic drops of rain, hanging from the edge of a roof or sliding down a windshield, reflecting an entire world within.  The language of motherhood, of adulthood, of childhood--the language of family and individual--has never been like this.  Sly and probing, with the sting of precision and pain.”  Raffel’s latest book is a memoir called The Secret Life of Objects and is now available for pre-order from the publisher.  Her fiction has appeared in OBOMB, Conjunctions, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Quarterly, NOON, and many others.  She has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University, and at Summer Literary Seminars in Montreal and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Let's Ditch the Labels

I consider myself a story junkie.  My late mother was fond of reminding me that at as a toddler I insisted on sleeping with a volume of nursery rhymes and kiddie tales rather than with a stuffed animal.  Barely a year out of college, I was editing short stories at a large-circulation national magazine (with admittedly very little in the way of credentials save an avid desire to learn).  If we add up my various gigs, including my current one at The Literarian at The Center for Fiction, I’ve logged in more than two decades as an editor of stories; and I have written two collections of same.  I happen to love stories of all sizes and shapes; the shortest I have published as an editor is one sentence (thank you, Richard Kostelanetz), the longest about 40 pages translated from the Russian.  So long as they are well written, I like stories that could have issued out of Dickens’s frozen cranium, and those that read as if there were composed by a Martian on speed.  I like them elegant and raw, silky and hard-edged, subtle and concussive.  What I don’t like so much is the proliferation of labels: flash fiction, microfiction, “new” fiction, postmodern minimalist, maximalist, speculative, slipstream, transgressive, real, surreal, noir, “dangerous,” ad infinitum.  While I understand the impulse, what these labels do is commodify and diminish. Literature—and I hope that’s what we’re aiming for here—should never be so easily reducible.  A good story, of whatever length or stripe, has the power to transform and amaze us, to comfort (by way of the shock of recognition) and unnerve us at the same time.  It is a record of being alive in the world.  If you shop for reading material by looking only within narrowly defined categories of what you’re sure you’ll like, you miss out on a wealth of possibility.

This year, can we celebrate short story month by becoming discerning consumers who don’t read labels?  And can those of us who are writers try the experiment of writing outside the safety of our familiar rubrics?  Why not trash the packaging and find out what’s inside?  I hope it bites.

Photo by Claire Holt


  1. Great stuff...also liked the Six Questions interview (via Literarian).

  2. Wonderful piece, Dawn!