The Golden Age of Short Fiction
All writers, whether they be poets, short fiction authors, or novelists, have had enormous influences on their writing. For me those influences range from Dostoyevsky to Fitzgerald, from Pablo Neruda to Bob Dylan. Sometimes a poet can have an influence on my fiction, and sometimes a novelist can have an influence on my short fiction. But for many years there has been something else, something extraordinary, something you don’t have to buy, something that is right there all of the time like a 24-hour a day classroom that is always at your disposal.
Several years ago I read an article asking: where have all the great short fiction authors gone? It made me wonder. There certainly wasn’t a shortage of novelists around, whether you admired them or not. And there certainly was a plethora of poets, perhaps more than any other type of writer. But there did seem to be a black hole when it came to short fiction. Where had all the great short fiction writers gone?
Hollywood is now the new home for the great short story teller. At 10:00 p.m. on FX or on American Movie Classics or on Wednesdays nights on Showtime or on HBO every weekend. Short story after short story, maybe more short stories than there has ever been before, have been playing right on our television sets under our own noses. Mad Men. Nip/Tuck. The Shield. Boardwalk Empire. LOST. Breaking Bad. The Killing. Deadwood. Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Walking Dead. Weeds. The X-Files. The Sopranos. Short fiction at its finest. Story-telling that can burst your heart apart at times. Character development that makes your hands twitch. Sure, there has always been great playwrights and great movies adopted for the silver screen, and even great script writers in Hollywood, but never before have we seen the depth and breadth of fine writing for television that we have seen over the past decade.
For years I longed to find those great writers out there that could light a fire under me, inspire me to be a better writer, like all the greats I was reading back when I was in high school and college. Back then it was simple to find writers who could inspire you. Hemingway could teach you the art of dialogue. Faulkner could tie ropes of grammar right around you like a lasso. Fitzgerald could colour it all in. Lovecraft could turn day to night. Steinbeck could reach down and touch your soul. And Silvia Plath could break it. But as you grew older and searched for the modern counterparts of these great writers you often found they were few and far between. Phillip Roth and Sherman Alexie and David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, although all great writers technically, always seemed to sacrifice storytelling for technical superiority, sometimes going astray and off-story for pages at a time to make a political statement that often should have been woven into the plot and not through self-indulgent diatribes . But you cannot do that on television.
The premieres of such television shows like The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and LOST grabbed your attention right by the throat. A police officer shooting another police officer right in the head. A plane full of passengers stranded on an island that isn’t on any map. The characters on these new types of television shows are usually deeply flawed—flawed in a way that most book authors would be afraid to write. And you want to talk about how to write a good story? LOST kept you dizzy for 6 plus years. The Shield had 89 episodes. Had these been novels we’re talking about War & Peace times ten. Truly writing at its finest.
For me I say skip showing these television shows to film students and aspiring film directors and script writers. Watching a season of Mad Men can teach a novelist or short fiction author everything they need to know about great story telling. How to catch the finer details of a period in history. How to weave fact with fiction. How to draw flawed yet sympathetic characters every viewer/reader can relate to.
The one thing that is frustrating about all this great storytelling is that most people don’t know the name of these truly great writers. Sure you might remember a few here and there, but most of these shows use multiple writers, sometimes outside writers, and also collaborative writing. You might know Matthew Weiner, because he’s worked on both Mad Men and The Sopranos, but most people only know the actors of these television shows who simply deliver the lines of a character that someone else wrote up out of thin air.
For myself, I believe I have learned more about character development, plot, climatic endings, settings, and story lines from some of these dramatic television shows, television shows that will probably go down as some of the best television ever produced, as opposed to learning these same elements from contemporary authors. You could say this might be a testament about the current state of modern writing, or you could look at it the way I do: that some of the best fiction is simply being written right now during the golden age of television. I, for one, am grateful that such great fiction is literally a click of a remote button away. Although, the greedy side of me wishes I could have this and also what I used to have at my disposal back when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Lovecraft, and Kerouac were all brand new to my eyes, soul, and mind. But that’s just me.
Tags: Boardwalk Empire, Bob Dylan, Breaking Bad, Curb Your Enthusiasm, David Foster Wallace, Deadwood, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, hemingway, Jonathan Franzen, kerouac, LOST, Lovecraft, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Nip/Tuck, Pablo Neruda, Phillip Roth, Sherman Alexie, short fiction, Short Stories, short story books, Silvia Plath, Steinbeck, The Killing, The Shield, The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, The X-Files