Rickey, Anyone? Stay Up With Me

Quick! Who knew that July is Rickey Month?! And who knows what a Rickey is? I’m waiting…

So I showed up at the new Litquake offices in the Mechanics Institute building in the financial district of San Francisco for a short story class taught by Tom Barbash. At the end of class, those lovely Litquake folks broke out the gin, lime, and selzer (and a little agave nectar) and celebrated a fine Saturday afternoon, as only writers can, with Gin Rickeys. Cheers!


Barbash made an interesting statement (one of several hundred) during class (paraphrasing here):

Short stories are terrible until they’re perfect. And short stories need to be perfect. But novels needn’t be. They’re more interesting with their imperfections.

I’m wondering how other people feel about this, especially my book reviewing friends. Do you agree with this statement? Have any thoughts? I’m all ears!

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And while you’re pondering that question, have a Gin Rickey, or whatever flips your switch. Then pick up Tom’s new short story collection: Stay Up With Me

I read the book last week during my stay at Squaw Valley. A NY Times book review called them, “addicting, like potato chips.” I’d have to agree. Reviewers have mentioned how they’re all about people with money. I’d say they’re similar to Cheever’s milieu in that respect. And by the time we get to the last story, we don’t care. At least I didn’t. I also detected more than a nod to one of Barbash’s friends, Dan Chaon. But I forgot to ask whether Chaon had taken Barbash’s title since Chaon’s story collection, Stay Awake, had come out a year earlier.  

At an evening reading at Squaw Valley, Barbash read “Birthday Girl,” a particularly haunting story from the collection. The main character makes a mistake and accidentally takes the life of another young person. It is a painful story with an ending that took my breath away. 

Now, before you head out to the bookstore, I’m dying to know what you think about perfection and the short story vs. the novel.


37 thoughts on “Rickey, Anyone? Stay Up With Me

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Good points! I knew there was a reason I felt smarter after drinking one. Or was it two? I can’t recall. Clearly, the effects are only temporary. The sun’s over the yardarm here, so perhaps I should start sharpening my mind once again.

  1. Lady Fancifull says:

    Am inclined to agree (I’d love a Rickey) – agree with the ‘short stories need to be perfect’ – rather like poems do – anything condensed does not have wriggle room for error. When reading a short story (or poem) it seems to me I am demanded to slow down and pay great attention – and therefore will absolutely notice flabby, clumsy, predictable, untruthful.

    I also think he is right that novels may be more interesting with (some) imperfections – in a way those imperfections might give the reader periods of ‘coasting’ as they read. I’m thinking of a book I’m reading at the moment (and have been, for a little while) It is very intense, very good, very condensed, as there are a lot of things going on which the writer is making me think and feel about. I am forced to lay it aside though as you can’t (well I can’t!) sustain the emotional intensity. Yes there are some imperfections and thinking ‘is she doing a bit too much here’ is at least giving me some emotional space to not be awash with too much intensity of empathetic reading feeling!

    I shall have a look at that short story collection.

    Just for FictionFan’s delight, my Kindle TBR went into 3 figures this morning.

  2. desertdweller29 says:

    I agree with the statement. I find short stories extremely difficult. They must accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time. Novels are more forgiving, and I am more forgiving of a novelist’s imperfections. Perhaps because I’m invested in the characters and plot with a novel, like an old fatal friend in which only longevity has bound us. Interesting post.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, one of the writers taking the class introduced herself as a poet who wanted to learn more about the short story form. Barbash told her that poets often find it much easier to take on the short story than novelists do. Novelists are used to having an expansive amount of space, and turning to the short story gives them great difficulty. And then there are those who are very comfortable with the short story and fall apart when attempting a novel or their novels are much less convincing.

  3. Mrs. P says:

    I admit I didn’t know what a Rickey was and had to look it up which then led me to ponder the differences between seltzer and tonics as I used to have dinner in the city with an old flame and his mother. Every time we went we had gin and tonics. It was an old school thing, I think…or perhaps a it was San Francisco thing. Either way, it was not a Ricky…and if you threw agave in yours, a Ricky purist might not approve. 😉

    As for perfection and imperfection. My thoughts were similar to desertdweller, a novel is more forgiving in that you have opportunity to diminish the errors by elaborating the content. In a short story, the errors are too fresh and for most people…short term memory is stronger.

    Sounds like you went to the retreat…I’m jealous! 🙂

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      You are so right. We did not go the purist route. The tonic water also contains quinine (or at least it used to). Something one used to be advised to drink if trying to ward off malaria.

      It’s so exciting. I just heard some rolling thunder. It only happens about once or twice a year in San Francisco, and it’s such a lovely sound. Sorry for the interruption.

      Yes, no one wants potholes in a short story, but if you’re invested in a novel, you’re more likely to accept them as minor bumps in the road you’re taking to somewhere interesting.

      I did go to Squaw. It was nirvana, but I wasn’t “workshopping” this time. I attended the panels and readings. I think it’s a great way to do it as I wasn’t nearly as exhausted when I returned home this time.

  4. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’m not sure anything can be perfect, but I agree a short story probably needs to be closer to it because it must capture the reader so quickly. Then again, it seems novels have to now, too. At least that’s what the agents say…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      You are correct. Nothing can be “perfect,” although I continue to hold up James Joyce’s “The Dead” as the most perfect short story in the English language.

      Regarding agents: It’s maddening, isn’t it? Yes, that’s what they’re saying. And publishers (at least the ones I heard talk at Squaw) are saying the same thing. They just don’t have as much time to develop a writer as they used to. I keep thinking about how much “help” Fitzgerald received from his editor. That would most likely not happen these days.

  5. Letizia says:

    I don’t think a short story has to be perfect but I do have more respect for a well written short story than a well written novel as I think they are harder to write (I make this claim solely on the fact that I’ve read fewer extraordinary short stories than extraordinary novels).

    Will have to make a Rickey one day….

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I agree with you. The short story is such a strange animal. So many authors, from Tobias Wolff to Ron Carlson to Tom Barbash, talk about how long it may take to write a short story, often years before they come up with the right beginning for a perfect ending or vice versa. Others come in a flash and require minor editing. Others may come in a flash but without the ending. It’s maddening if you let it get to you. I think a writer must cultivate a certain Zen-like state to maintain some semblance of sanity.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I reckon I’m going to kinda sorta disagree. A bit. (Surprise!)

    Like Carrie I don’t think anything can really be perfect, and I’m not sure that’s ever what I’m looking for anyway. What I’m looking for (I think) is to be made to feel or to think, or both would be nice. So a novel may have more space to do this in, but it may also have too much space – losing my attention and committing the ultimate sin of boring me. A short story must be effective in a small space while a novel must be effective in a large space. So if I had to say what the difference should be I guess I’d say something like – a short story should concentrate on one thing and remove all extraneous waffle, whereas a novel may concentrate on several things, and a bit of waffle might be necessary to link them without it feeling too contrived. Focused, rather than perfect, maybe. (Just been reading a bunch of sci-fi shorts and bitterly muttering to myself about people stretching small ideas out to three times the length they require or can maintain. I suspect it’s because they’re commissioned to write a certain number of words.)

    I do realise this is an incredibly waffly reply – kind of thinking aloud, but foolishly typing it at the same time! Think I’ll go get a Rickey now…

    And none of us have discussed where the novella fits in…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Aha! Well said! Yes, a short story should have the focus and swiftness of a bird of prey while a novel, well, it’s more like a—well, a gatherer species, like a black bear. They’re intent on munching a variety of foods that nourish them, eating their fill within a fairly strict time limit since hibernation must be considered.

      The days of the “paid by word count” are over, probably for the best. Now, it’s the shorter the better. So that needs to be taken into consideration when reading stories written from a bygone era.

      Do waffles go with Rickeys?

      • FictionFan says:

        Yes, exactly! That’s what I was trying to say – only I got caught up in waffledom. Glad you were able to interpret!

        Are they? Well, I think that’s a good thing really although I’m not sure about the shorter the better bit. I’d like them to be the length they need to be. I’ve read some good short ones and some good longer ones, but also several that might have been good if they’d only been half the length.

        Hmm…perhaps I should have gone nutty rather than waffly…

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          I don’t know. That’s a tough decision. Whether to go nutty and risk being buried by a squirrel or go waffly and risk being covered in something sticky and sweet. Neither sound like a great option. How about batty? Then you’ll just be upside down on any given issue and able to find your way about in the dark. Hmmm. Perhaps that one would fit if we take into account your ongoing match with LF?

          • FictionFan says:

            Hmm…I think I’ll opt for the buried by a squirrel option. Madam Fancifull and I have agreed a couple of times this last couple of weeks – I’m finding that deeply worrying. Clearly one of us is going mad…

  7. heylookawriterfellow says:

    I’ve never considered the “perfect short story” & “imperfect novel” idea before. I (mostly) believe this theory. There’s something about working in a compressed storytelling form that provides hardly any room for error. As a guy who writes picture books, I feel this pressure acutely. I always need to make sure there is not a single wasted or unnecessary word in my manuscript.

    That said, I’m not certain I’ve ever read a perfect anything. So I would say Barbash’s remark is also imperfect. I would say that tiny imperfections in a short story are far more glaring than larger imperfections in a novel.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Oh, yes! Writing picture books (at least if you’re trying to do it well) is like writing poetry. Not only should there be no unnecessary words, but each one you select needs to be the right one.

      I say we all raise a Rickey to imperfections in statements and writing. May they rear their tiny heads in places that make our manuscripts and our conversations more interesting!

  8. Britt Skrabanek says:

    I’m not much of a short story reader, so I can’t be too specific. But I think any written work, whether short or long, needs to be as clean as possible. At the end of the day, perfection is a bit of a pipe dream. : )

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, indeed. As with infinities, though, some things are more perfect (or more infinite) than others.

      You sound like someone who likes to be in a book for the long haul. Have you ever tried reading Alice Munro’s short stories? She has many collections that read like novels.

      • Britt Skrabanek says:

        It’s funny that I’m in it for the long haul, since I’m such an impatient, go-getter type. Guess taking my time with stories helps balance me out. I would like to explore more short stories though. I greatly enjoyed Dianne Gray’s “Manslaughter and Other Tears” recently.

        Someone else recommended Alice Munro to me as well. I already have Munro’s “Selected Stories 1968-1994” on my Goodreads list. I’ll check her out!

  9. Call of the Siren says:

    Reblogged this on Call of the Siren and commented:
    The lines in Jil’s post about the difference between a short story and a novel are encouraging, especially if you’re a novelist with a manuscript chock full of imperfections! Just what I needed to see, and you might need to see it, too.

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