This time she was in the third row, toward the center, hers a face even Warren Beatty might not tire to gaze upon. This time she was young, though on other occasions she had been younger or older or, not infrequently, not a “she” at all. This time she got her question in early, well before I’d had the chance to charm her and the rest of the audience with a joke or yet another display of shallow wit. This time she actually smiled when she asked — semi-chagrined, I’m hoping, to have to ask it in the first place.
“Why don’t you write a novel?”
I don’t think she meant to insult me. But only quick thinking and a knowing chuckle from my host, not to mention the memory of my mother wagging her finger at my nose to emphasize yet another lesson regarding good manners I’d failed to learn, kept me from saying the obvious: Why, sweet cheeks, isn’t a bear a horse? Which is to say, without a lot of the hooey that nowadays attends far too many things, that she, like so many theretofore, seemed to think that in the scheme of matters literary, writing stories was decidedly minor league; that grown-ups, those with more on their minds than what USA Today needs only a hundred words to say, wrote novels; that a real artist(e), a typist with monstrously BIG ideas between his ears, needed at least a three-inch pile of paper to get the talk walked — all assertions as full of dangerous nonsense as any issuing from the National Rifle Association and the Republican party.
I do not think of stories, even the most traditional of them, as practice for the supposedly harder and putatively more sophisticated work that we’re told the novel is. I do not think of stories as inherently an easier form to fail in. Nor do I think of stories, no matter the age or ilk, as insufficient to the task of detailing, as Updike once noted, how it is to live in the here and now. I do not think of stories as child’s play, less demanding because they are less long. I do not consider stories, in fine, as efforts silly or ephemeral or provisional. Nah, I write stories, too many of them not short enough, because I can. Which is to say, with nary a twinkle in the eye, that the form suits my temperament, never mind my understanding of our goofy and condemned kind.
In the first place, as a scribbler who came of age in the 60s, I am impatient, eager to grab the next goody in the refrigerator, anxious to go on the next adventure. World peace? Yeah, today that, and tomorrow the end of hunger in Africa. What do you mean, as my father used to say, Rome wasn’t built in a day? For me, you’re beginning to gather, speed is of no little premium. Hence, if two or three — God help me! — four stories go bust before Independence Day, no big deal, because I know that, come Thanksgiving, I’ll have at least one to be reasonably proud of, one to show to a stranger with a checkbook and a publication that reaches Americans at bulk rate.
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