31 Days of Short Stories 2010, Day 22: “How to Write a Successful Short Story” by Leon Rooke

May 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Last Shot

In his spirited defence of Leon Rooke’s 2009 story collection for The Afterword’s Canada Also Reads project, poet Jacob McArthur Mooney crafted what could be considered a manifesto for those of us who want to see our literary culture break out of its moribund stasis and embrace in a concerted way those artists who work on the fringes:

What I’d like is a reading (and reviewing) culture that values the wildchilds, the impossibility merchants and the avant-garde as partners in a community of bibliophiles that sees a vibrant and replenishing fringe as necessary to a vibrant and replenishing middle. Our imaginative country is well-represented by artists we export from other literary genres (including speculative fiction, with folks like John Clute and William Gibson, who shares Rooke’s status as an American-born Canadian-by-choice) and in other art forms, from our spacey rock ’n’ roll to our visceral cinematic imaginers at the fringe (David Cronenberg) and centre (James Cameron) of international film. Maybe we already have an imaginative country, and we just need one that’s willing to own that imagination.

The author of more than 300 short stories, Leon Rooke has spent his career toiling as one of Canada’s “impossibility merchants.” Unlike Ray Smith, whose writing in late-career novels like The Man Who Loved Jane Austen strayed into more conventional territory, Rooke has remained almost defiantly on the postmodern outskirts, playing and testing and experimenting, determined to chart the outer limits of the short story form.

As is apparent from its title, “How to Write a Successful Short Story” is an exercise in postmodern playfulness. Its central figure is a 23-year-old aspiring writer who has consulted a how-to book by a man named Fink, a creative writing guru who the narrator thinks will teach him how to write a good short story “before the sun goes down.”

Books purporting to teach aspirants how to write fiction are so plentiful that they have become a genre unto themselves, and Rooke has a great deal of fun sending up the clichés and conventional wisdom contained in the vast majority of them. Fink’s book is replete with useless platitudes, all presented in assertive boldface: “Start Your Fiction with a Bang“; “Write What You Know“; “Make Your Characters Attractive“; “Be Unique Without Being Eccentric.” The opening of a story should “hit you in the gut” and should grab the reader “like a hand at the throat.” Fink advises writers to “Zap those metaphors” and “holds no truck” with minimalist writers such as Mary Robison, Frederick Barthelme, or Raymond Carver, whose stories do not come to a definitive end, instead giving the impression that “the author just quits the story when he’s tired of it or his brain has gone dead.” Rooke, who is closer in spirit to the three writers Fink professes to hate than to the kind of writer Fink advocates his readers they should become, is having a bit of a laugh here; there is a not-so-subtle skewering of complacent, formula fiction taking place throughout this story. It is telling that Fink (note the name) “has toiled countless thousands of hours making his very popular stories”: the measure of a story’s success, for Fink, is popularity, not literary achievement.

Rooke plays with Fink’s methods and advice to great comic effect:

Keep your paragraphs short, Fisk says [sic].

Okay.

Or elsewhere:

A successful narrative, Fink asserts, must be seamless, must be fluid. A tactic a pro frequently finds useful is to plop a star (*) onto the page. This indicates a line break. The line break serves to inform the reader that a passage of time has occurred, to expect an alteration in point of view, or angle, another plot loop, etc. Usually what it indicates to me is that the writer is stymied, his wife is making him walk the dog, or the schmuck has got up to refresh his drink.

This paragraph is, of course, followed by an editorial space (complete with star) and a shift in scene.

However, although Rooke pokes fun at the conventions of writing manuals, his narrative also tugs against Fink’s rules in more subtle ways. Despite the advice to keep paragraphs short, Rooke includes several lengthy paragraphs, one of which runs to almost a page and a half. When Fink advises that conflict is essential in any narrative, the narrator launches into a description of his difficult relationship with his father, who referred to his son as “Asshole” and abandoned him when he was 13:

Leaving me at home to rot, which was reason enough, I thought, to hot-wire his cars and break into the pantry where he hid away his hooch. Not to mention the little fire we had around then, thee acres gone up in flames, the addition over the garage where he had put in his weight room, the games room, all that gone. Nor to dwell on my dope days, my B&E period, how I got hold of his bank PIN to raid his private treasury, them down there in Wahoo living he goldenrod life. Me, too, zipping about in his red Porsche until I wrapped it around a tree, all but deliberately, I would say, and owing to the presence of some heavy dust.

Rooke allows the character of the narrator to reveal itself in the way he attempts to put Fink’s advice into practice; the irony, of course, is that Rooke’s narrative schema is diametrically opposed to the writing instructor’s populist approach.

Nevertheless, there is a human heart to this story, and scenes that are genuinely affecting. Rooke is not so focused on his postmodern technical games that he forgets his characters; as Mooney asserts, “Rooke’s circuitous and mesmerizing structures aren’t means to avoid the human imperative at the heart of good stories but rather means to find new routes for exploring that humanity. Leon Rooke and Alice Munro, in the end, have the same aspirations.” In pursuit of those aspirations, Rooke has remained the literary wildchild, one of Canada’s unrepentant impossibility merchants. And for that, we can all be grateful.

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