The Novel Versus the Short Story: A Conversation with Matthew Lansburgh

March 22, 2018 | 10 books mentioned 13 min read

The novel’s superiority over the short story has long been a subject of contentious debate among writers, readers, and publishers, and is in no danger of being resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in the near or distant future. The New York publishing world’s privileging of the novel over the short story, with a few notable exceptions, helps to assure the novel’s primacy among today’s prose forms, and booksellers likewise feature more novels on their frontlist and new paperback tables than short story collections.

Certainly there are other reasons why novels, along with memoirs (putative autobiographies, in which their authors often employ the conventions of the novel), are the dominant prose forms on offer in bookstores, but if more short story collections were published by corporate publishing houses, it seems a reasonable assumption that their sales and marketing departments would then necessarily be tasked with promoting them with the same publicity muscle and marketing ingenuity used to promote long-form fiction titles.

Some readers complain that the short story doesn’t allow them to fully inhabit the fictional world the author has created because they feel as if the story is over almost as soon as it begins, but this has always struck me as a hollow reproach, one easily remedied by more careful reading, by slowing down and calling on all five senses instead of proceeding solely with the devouring eye that savors little of what it alights upon.

In the last couple of years, a number of debut collections have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling most short story writers confront, even with a large publishing house behind them, and have garnered considerable acclaim and review attention, among them titles by Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Zhang, and Ottessa Moshfegh.

Another writer who could justifiably take his place alongside the new generation of short story masters is Matthew Lansburgh, whose collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III for the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was recently named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.

One of the more notable formal qualities of this addictive, deeply imaginative, and often very funny debut is that despite its classification as a story collection, it could be described as a novel with equal accuracy. Many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean were published in journals as stand-alone stories, but taken as a whole, the book’s narrative moves with the fluidity and authority of a novel, most of the stories alternating between two point-of-view characters, Heike, a German woman who emigrated to the U.S. as a young woman, and her son, Stewart, a young academic whose estranged, bullying American father divorced his mother when he was still a small boy.

Outside Is the Ocean is novelistic in scope, spanning 42 years, with the earliest story set in 1967 and the latest in 2019—the force of Heike’s big personality reverberating through every story. In order to escape the unreasonable expectations she has of their mother-son relationship, and her recriminations when he can’t meet them, Stewart flees to the other side of the country as soon as he reaches adulthood and eventually becomes a college professor in Boston.

Stewart’s father, Raymond, is also an academic whom he sees rarely, and in the stories where Stewart does visit his father, he is treated with hostility if he fails to behave or perform exactly as his father demands. Although it would be easy to portray both Raymond and Heike in a villainous light, Lansburgh manages to suffuse the stories that focus on them with pathos, ensuring they are fully realized, complicated characters whose sorrows and disappointments ultimately feel as immediate as Stewart’s do.

Via email and Google Docs, Lansburgh and I recently corresponded about Outside Is the Ocean and his formation as a fiction writer.

Christine Sneed: Which story did you begin with? (I’m guessing you didn’t proceed chronologically from 1967 to 2019). And how did these characters and their stories take root?

Matthew Lansburgh: You’re right that I didn’t write all the stories in the collection chronologically, but the stories I first began working on were in fact the earliest from a chronological perspective. I started these stories well over a decade ago when I first tried to write about my parents. Initially, I began writing what I thought might be a kind of memoir—mostly as a way for me to try to understand my childhood and the people who raised me. This process of making sense of my past through crafting and recrafting scenes in various permutations led me to realize that fiction would be a better vehicle to tell my story. One of the most important lessons I learned early on is that how you tell your story is the most important decision a writer makes. The first five years of working on this book were really about exploring the various ways I could structure and frame my material. In the end, I ended up letting go of the idea that I needed to be true to the facts, and I began to fabricate and embellish and let my imagination take over.

coverCS: Outside Is the Ocean has been marketed as a story collection, but it’s more novelistic than David Szalay‘s latest novel, the Man Booker Prize finalist All That Man Is, which is thematically linked but has almost no overlapping characters. It’s hard not to assume Szalay’s book was marketed as a novel for the sole purpose of bringing more readers to it (which isn’t, all things being equal, a bad thing, considering how hard it is to sell books today). Why do you think there’s such a preference for novels over short story collections among readers and most publishers?

coverML: I’m glad to hear you think Outside Is the Ocean feels novelistic—thank you! I think the fact that the book follows the lives of a recurring cast of characters and that the reader can see how those characters’ lives evolve over time does make it feel more like a novel than many short story collections. When people ask me whether I had any literary models in mind as I worked on my book, I often mention Olive Kitteridge, which was marketed as a novel-in-stories.

As for why it is that many readers and publishers favor novels over short story collections, I’m guessing the reason is that people like the idea of escaping into another world that is fully realized and allows the reader to transcend the confines of his or her reality. We all know, however, that the best short stories do in fact provide this kind of escape—in an hour or two, rather than over a much longer timespan. Indeed, I would argue that given the increasingly diminished attention spans we all have these days, short stories should be more popular than ever. Perhaps a book of linked short stories offers the best of both worlds: bite-size narratives that can be consumed one sitting at a time, over the course of several days or weeks?

CS: Did the fact that you were aware of the novel’s popularity over the short story guide the way you wrote and structured OItO?

ML: I wish I could say that I wrote Outside Is the Ocean with some kind of master plan, but the truth is it felt like I was stumbling along during most of the writing process. Some of the key factors that shaped the book’s form had nothing to do with the “market,” but rather with where I was in my life: this is the first book I tried to write and I found the idea of writing one short story, followed another and another, less daunting than tackling a novel (so many of us start with stories, I suppose); I also wrote most of the book while I had a full-time day job, and I found working on a series of shorter pieces easier to navigate than than a single 300-page project. Once I’d gathered together a critical mass of stories and realized they involved the same characters in various settings and circumstances, I did begin to think about what it might take to create a book-length work, but that came later on.

CS: I’m guessing, based on your reply to question #2, that you read more novels than story collections, though perhaps I’m wrong? Do you intend to write more short stories? (Maybe you’re working on some at present).

ML: Yes! I love writing short stories and hope to write them for many years to come, though recently I’ve been spending most of my time working on a novel. (The novel is quite different from Outside Is the Ocean in terms of its tone and sensibility—it’s about a misfit with horns who gets fired from his corporate job and ends up working at Chipotle!) As for my reading habits, I think I pick up story collections and novels in approximately equal numbers. I tend to dip into lots of books, because I’m always curious to see what contemporary writers are up to.

coverCS: William Trevor and Alice Munro have written novels, though in Munro’s case, only one, Lives of Girls and Women, which could probably still be considered a story collection, but they’re best known for short stories and are considered masters of the form. Do you see Outside Is the Ocean as a book in conversation with authors like Trevor and Munro? You mention Elizabeth Strout above, but I’m curious about your other influences.

covercovercovercovercovercoverML: Alice Munro and William Trevor are absolutely in my pantheon of favorite writers. Stories like “Runaway” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as well as “Folie à deux” and “An Afternoon” will, I’m certain, remain in my consciousness and inform who I am until I die. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a slow reader: I’ve always wished I was someone who could read a novel a week, but that just isn’t how I’m wired. As a result, I’ve never gravitated toward large, sprawling novels—the books I connect with most powerfully are usually collections of short stories or shorter novels. I love everything I’ve ever read by Flannery O’Connor and Janet Frame. I also love Coetzee (Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians), Nabokov (Lolita), Salinger (especially Nine Stories), Ishiguro (Remains of the Day!!!!), and Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red). Now that I’m answering this question, I’m realizing the list of writers I admire is quite long and includes more people than I can reasonably list here, including Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, and Tony Doerr.

CS: You mentioned above that you began writing Outside Is the Ocean as a memoir but realized that fiction was a better vehicle for this particular story. I kept thinking as I read that Heike and Raymond would be extremely challenging parents to have, and Heike especially is larger than life and almost pathologically maddening at times. What were the main challenges of writing characters who were based on people you knew very well?

ML: Because the material’s seeds are so personal, I do feel like writing the stories served as a form of catharsis. Working through draft after draft of some of the pieces often felt like a kind of therapy, as if the process of conjuring various permutations of certain scenes allowed me to revisit and reexamine events from my past, imagining different fact patterns and possible paths along life’s decision tree. As I mentioned above, the end result is fiction, but the emotions underlying and informing the narrative moments came from my lived experience—I suppose that’s often the case for most writers. I think one of the reasons so many people aspire to write is that putting words on the page can provide an opportunity for us to grapple with things that have happened to us and to understand not only who we are but who the people in our lives are.

As for Heike and Raymond, I think the biggest challenge posed by using my mother and father as the basis for these characters was allowing myself (forcing myself) to let go of reality and let my imagination run free. The characters in the book are different in important ways from my parents and ended up being distinct people. One of the things I struggled with in revision was how to make Heike and Raymond as three-dimensional as possible: to avoid caricature and cliche. This was especially difficult in the case of Raymond who existed for several years on the page as the prototypical angry, domineering father. Writing “The Sky and the Night” was definitely a turning point in my understanding of who Raymond could be. That was one of the last stories I wrote, and it felt like a bit of a breakthrough emotionally.

CS: You earned your MFA in creative writing from NYU, and I’m wondering if in the writing workshops you participated in, most of your classmates were writing short stories (and were they encouraged to do so, rather than writing a novel while in the program)?

ML: I loved my experience at NYU. The program is incredibly flexible, and they allowed me to take classes part-time. (I was enrolled in the program over a period of five years, taking just one class a semester and sometimes skipping semesters altogether.) The faculty is superb, and I had a chance to study with Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Amy Hempel, Colson Whitehead, E.L. Doctorow, Hannah Tinti, and Darin Strauss. The professors who led our workshops didn’t encourage one form over another. It seemed to me about 60 percent of the students were working on stories, the rest novels. In general, I think the students who were the most ambitious and “connected” were, more often than not, working on novels. I guess they figured out early on that it would be easier to sell a novel than a collection of stories.

CS: You likely worked on many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean while at NYU—did any of your classmates or professors suggest that you write this book as a straightforward novel, i.e. a book with many fewer stand-alone chapters? Was this something you tried?

ML: I did indeed work on many of the stories in the collection while I was a student at NYU. As I recall, only one or two people suggested that I think about what the stories might look like if they were combined into a more traditional novel, but I did try to see whether that approach might work. In the end, none of those attempts got traction (I tried to write the entire book from Heike’s POV, for example, but that started to feel too claustrophobic). In the end, I think the story format offered more flexibility by allowing me to use multiple voices, points of view, and narrative postures.

CS: Do you ever encounter readers who say, “I think you’re a good writer, but I’m straight and just can’t identify with gay characters?” I’m asking this because the topic comes up in writing workshops, i.e. some readers won’t or can’t read from a subject position other than their own. Stewart, who is gay, is of course central to the book and it’s his perspective through which so many of the stories are filtered. His sexuality, however, is only one aspect of who he is.

ML: Ha! I think if I did come across someone who said that I might spray some Chanel Eau de Parfum in their hair. I know that there are probably many people out there who still hold these kinds of views, but, fortunately, I rarely interact with people like that at this point in my life. I live in New York City where it seems just about everyone is gay or wants to be gay.

In all seriousness, I have to say I’ve been thrilled by how supportive and enthusiastic the book’s readers have been (including a number of straight, white, cis dudes—some well over 60—who told me they’ve enjoyed it). The reception I’ve received has been quite heartening, especially given the fact that when the book came out, I really only expected the gays and women to be interested in reading it. Many of the readers (including the straight dudes) have even said they were able to identify with many of the characters in the book. Responses like this have made my fragile heart burst into song.

CS: Despite the undercurrent of sadness that pervades many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean, there are so many comic moments in this book. Would you say that comedy comes naturally to you?

ML: It always makes me happy to hear that readers find parts of the book funny. Humor is important to me—both on the page and in life itself. My father was a jokester, and I think I inherited his somewhat zany way of looking at the world. It was one of his best qualities. A lot of my writing does have a comic dimension, but Outside Is the Ocean is, for the most part, quite serious, so I’m glad to hear you found moments of levity along the way.

I do think that comedy comes naturally to me. Sometimes people don’t always share my sense of humor, but I see the world as a strange place, full of ridiculous situations and things that often don’t make sense. My father was a difficult person, someone who could be quite scary and sometimes menacing, but he could also be whimsical and funny. In retrospect, I think I developed humor as a kind of coping mechanism to help calm him down and defuse tension. It worked much better than bursting into tears or trying to match his fury with my own.

CS: You wrote above that you’re working on a novel about a man with horns. Where on earth did this character come from?

ML: Yes, I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for about five years. One of the book’s central characters is a woman with wings who grew up in Croatia and who works in Coney Island. My protagonist, Karl, becomes infatuated with her, and I figured I needed to make him special too. I gave him horns in the second draft of the book. They’re not big horns—just little ones. Most people don’t even know they’re there.

CS: One final question: what has been the hardest part of launching a new book into the world and how have you handled it?

ML: Getting people to read it. Getting reviews in national publications. There are so many good books out there, so to ask people to take a chance on a book that hasn’t been promoted with a big-budget marketing campaign has been a bit of an uphill battle.

On the plus side, many of the people who’ve read Outside Is the Ocean have become enthusiastic supporters. I feel very fortunate that some very well-respected writers (such as yourself!) have taken the time to read my book and have responded so positively to it. It means a lot to me.

is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and has received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, and the Chicago Writers' Association Book of the Year Award. She lives in Evanston, Ill. and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s graduate creative writing programs.

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