I’m writing this collection of short stories.
The very notion of thinking about doing such a thing is inherently antithetical to making any sort of meaningful money; that is to say that people are not by and large rushing into bookstores, viciously elbowing the elderly out of the way, to feverishly yank the last copy of the newest hot short story collection off the shelves. To be fair, you could argue people aren’t really rushing into physical bookstores in any capacity, but I think you get my point: short stories don’t typically sell. Or if they do, they don’t sell in that sense of the word that sends cartoon dollar signs cartwheeling through your head. It’s part-time job money. It’s the type of money Dennis Lehane pulls in every time you say his name out loud.
Even part-time cash is cash I don’t have, though, and the idea of making any living at all from writing stories is luxurious enough to leave me rubbing imaginary hundos all over my body. That wish for riches – and moreover for riches sourced from a pursuit I give a shit about – is what, I think, gives rise to a certain hesitance I feel when I start writing things. To put it bluntly: like many writers, a certain portion of me is concerned very strongly not simply with writing, but with writing something that sells.
I know what you’re thinking: “Who gives a shit what you’re feeling? Shut up! Give me your goddamn lunch money, nerd.”
And you’re right (bully). It doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people out there balancing their artistry with their pursuit of commercial success, and who’re still being productive despite this tightrope walking, and I realize doing that boils down to simple discipline and consistency; I goddamn guarantee you that somewhere Stephen King is napping peacefully on a bed made of money, having pounded out his 2500 words, just as he does every day. I may have fallen out of love with what he does, but I admire the shit out of his work ethic.
But I think you could argue – and maybe many other aspiring, not-yet-profitable writers like myself would – that that’s an easier thing to do, that throwing caution to the wind and just writing whatever you want without regard for the potential audience/market, when you’re established. I can’t help feeling there’s truth in that (bummer of an) argument, because I find myself, during the ongoing process of drafting these stories I hope one day to sell, worried about whether they’re a bit out there. There’s nothing wrong with writing fiction that’s odd or whatever in some way, but when you’re considering things in a where-does-this-fit-into-the-market context, I find it significantly more difficult not to be skeptical. And by that I mean when I write, I sometimes find myself wandering into the treacherous territory of overthinking things, and when that happens, the level of suck skyrockets.
I feel like I’ve gotten off track here, though, because I started writing this with the intent of imparting some positivity – and the truth is I’m constantly finding new examples of people who wrote/are writing fiction that is off-the-wall, batshit insane, but still incredibly successful both in a critical and a commercial context. So let me step back from the ledge, quit with the whining, and proceed with the (figurative) fellating of Barry Hannah.
I’ve been talking up Airships on the twitter for a while now, but I want to take a second to do so again here. I wish I could tell you I don’t judge books by their covers, but let me be frank: the cover art, the design, the font – it’s all goddamn horrible for the vintage contemporary edition of the book I have. It’s something that screams eightiesto me; it’s cartoonish and cheap-looking. It’s like they’ve managed to distill the essence of a Casio keyboard into the cover on a collection of short stories. I hear drum machines.
Because of those superficial elements, I did little more than flip through the book for years and years. I didn’t feel bad about it, because the look and the feel of the thing had convinced me that it was going to suck, so it languished on my shelf. I forced myself to pick it up recently, though, and I noticed something: it is fucking fantastic. I tend to not be particularly interested in the tradition of southern writers or whatever, but there’s a certain attitude here, a bravery and a confidence and a weirdness, that attracts and fascinates me. Strange undercurrents just beneath the surface.
Take “Our Secret Home,” for example. The long and short of it is that our narrator throws a party that turns out terribly; the air conditioner breaks, the food is ruined, and no one comes. It’s a disaster. For some writers, it’d be enough to have this situation be the crux of the story; maybe the ruined party is reflective of the deteriorating relationship between a husband and a wife, or the catalyst for a transition in the way they interact with each other, or whatever. Hannah, though, throws us a curveball.
The narrator/main character keeps a strange, abnormally acting, near-silent twin sister in the house. She seems unable to process social cues or interact with other people comfortably, and for the most part she’s incapable of utilizing language in the same way many do – she speaks in a broken, half-sensical cousin of the English language that suggests a homegrown, imperfect understanding of communication.
In other words, homeboy is keeping a retarded/crazy sister in the upstairs of his house.
Sometimes she comes down and ruins parties, and he takes care of her in a way that is terribly, tragically intimate and devoted; after a fight with his wife, he trudges up to his sister’s room and washes and shaves her and speaks kindly and gently to her. This has, it’s implied, been going on for a very long time. I don’t want to shine the flashlight too far into the darkness, here, because it’s not really what’s in the darkness that I’m concerned with here: it’s the fact that there’s unexplored, strange territory to begin with. That, to me, is energizing and inspiring in a way that’s difficult to properly articulate. It’s awesome, in other words, that there’s such fantastically weird stuff out there.
And to boot – Hannah was an incredibly successful, popular writer (Esquire loved him, so there’s your Gagnon connection) and he did so by cultivating fiction that took hard left turns into places that were stunning and odd – thickets of tangled interlocking vines. The lesson here, the bright side that I’ve taken from reading this story, the whole collection, and doing a little bit of research on Hannah and his career, is that there are no rules save one – do whatever you want, regardless of commercial or financial considerations. People have done as much and will continue to do so, no matter what you’re sitting around worrying about. You might as well make some crazy shit up, too.