I am a professional writer of serious fiction, which means that I don't always earn quite enough to be able to avoid trying to teach people who may have talent, but who surely have the desire, they think, to write fiction that someone of a sophisticated range and taste might wish to read. When I do this fiction coaching, as 1 sometimes think of it, I am met with sullen or even outraged questioning. It occurs after I have indicated, on a commentary written in response to student work, that I do not choose to read stories about electric elves from a far-off solar system who have come to earth to either suck our blood, give us free dope, or teach us a lesson about cherishing peace. Nor, I tell my students, will I read a story about waking up, greasy and hungover, in a fraternity house, after having had unprotected sex with someone—the narrator now notices—whose species is in doubt.
“What's good enough for you?” they say, although sometimes with a tone of what might pass as respect.
“Serious fiction,” I say. “Something plausible, in American English, with something actual-feeling at stake. Bad news, in other words,” I say.
Now, what I do best and most, whether I teach or not, and whether that work always meets with your approval, is write. I am not by inclination or training a theorist. Yet you have made the mistake of inviting me to expatiate on the nature of short fiction, and, flattered away from sensible behavior, I have made the mistake of accepting your invitation. With this understanding—that all parties have got themselves in trouble, and with my prejudices clearly in mind—let me tell you a story.