For a long time, I wondered why so many high budget movies were so bad. Until I watched, Tales from the Script, (a documentary of screenwriter interviews). While watching this documentary, I realized that screenwriters are a lot like engineers. They’re competent technicians trying to persuade a bureaucracy and the holders of the purse strings of their ideas.
On higher budget movies, these ideas can’t always get through. Good ideas get corrupted by people in the system who want their own ideas implemented simply for a sense of their security and self worth.
It’s important that idea-based stories be free to reach an audience. How can stories survive in a committee environment where so much money is up for grabs? Everyone argues and says stuff to sound cool and the story slinks out the conference room door. Then what do you have? Not much. You lost eight bucks and watched a two hour and a half hour movie with talking robots that didn’t make sense.
Short stories, on the other hand, can be written quickly. Production costs are miniscule. There is no medium where it’s easier to defend one’s aim. This contrast of integrity, time and resources is why it’s important that short stories have a resurgence in commercial popularity.
A lot of people are writing short stories. Practically no one is making a living off their publication. This is bad for short stories. Never trust an artist who doesn’t make a living off his art.
What advances have been made in the art of the short story over the last, say, fifty years? There was the quill—short stories were good then. There was the typewriter—the ball point pen—some pretty good stories over those years, also. Then there was the word processor. We can all just tap away on these things until our heart’s content. Has it helped? It’s convenient. Has MS Word helped writers? Maybe not. And so, it’s because this latest development in short story writing has been such a flop that I think readers and writers need to look hopefully toward the next innovation in short fiction: the audiobook. Why the audiobook? Why not the ebook?
Ebooks are great. I think the advent of the ebook can, and will, help short stories. But, ebooks reflect a change to distribution rather than medium. Audiobooks, on the other hand, have the potential to radically change how our minds process the form of our stories. But first, our writers will need to add tools to their belts.
Short story writers of the future will, in increasing numbers, have not only a laptop and word processor but also a nice condenser microphone, an ad-hoc recording studio (a walk-in closet can work surprisingly well), a mixing board, monitor speakers and decent digital processing software like Garageband, Audacity or even Pro Tools.
What’s so great about an audiobook? Nothing yet. At present, people mostly listen to save time or distract themselves while doing tedious tasks. But it’s possible that people could, in the future, use audiobooks as a means to get to the really good stories in their society. The ones that maybe weren’t fashionable to publish or that a bunch of fatcats didn’t want to invest fifty million bucks on. When storytelling is healthy, it’s flexible. A healthy story isn’t too worried about its marketability. You don’t want your story looking in the mirror and asking, “Do I look hot, today?”
So how do we make short stories that can engage an audience on the same level as film and television? Let me ask another question: what’s the difference between a poet and a rap artist. Answer: several million dollars and a good beat. And there’s a reason for this difference. There’s a hemisphere of the brain that really likes words and there’s a hemisphere of the brain that really likes rhythm. When an artistic work says hello to both those hemispheres, both those hemispheres decide to get together and throw a kickass party. On a mass scale, I think this is why some artists and some artistic mediums are more successful than others. Incidentally, Hemingway, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, made his greatest contribution by means of what we now call prose rhythm. Rhythm connects us to our heartbeat which connects to our feelings. Words connect to the symbols that make up our reality. So, when a work of art excites both our feelings and the symbolic reality of our world, it’s party-time for our brain. We are entertained. For these reasons, I think there are going to be advances in the field of the short story with regard to how rhythm and prose compliment each other in a recording.
And the time is right. Got a Mac? You got Garageband. Got internet? You got Audacity. By the way, Garageband has a graphical user interface that’s particularly well suited for mixing recordings and Audacity is well suited for mastering. You can think of these software programs as brushes to use on your canvas instead of considering a particular software program as a complete universe unto itself.
So, again, why is this all so important? Why can’t we just sit back and pay the eight dollars for the talking robot movie or the thirtieth sequel of a burnt-out franchise? Nietzsche wrote something in his work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, that has stuck with me for a few years. Roughly quoting, he said he preferred his authors to “write in blood.” My interpretation of that passage is that he felt the regurgitation of ideas, resulting from increased literacy from the advent of the printing press, had stymied the creativity of writers. I believe Nietzsche wanted writers who wrote things because they meant something personal to them (written in blood) and that weren’t just a slick synergy or reconstitution of past works. The same thing Nietzsche witnessed at the advent of the printing press is happening with mass media. Unfortunately, it may not be enough to write in blood anymore. Individual writers have to up their game to compete with the Big Boys and bypass the bureaucratic pitfalls that await their stories. They need to produce in blood.